What if Marcel Proust had a pizza instead of a sponge cake? Would things would be very different and might you care about his voluminous novels in French?
This brief lesson in French literature is connected to pizza, I promise.
You’ve probably seen that little French sponge cake that’s shaped like a seashell and known as a madeleine. In French literature, the madeleine is a metaphor for triggering nostalgia or an involuntary memory.
It stems from Marcel Proust’s seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time. (It was originally translated in English as Remembrance Of Things Past. You might remember that. Or not.)
The story’s narrator has only one memory of his childhood home. But one day, while tasting a madeleine dipped in tea, he is swept up by a nostalgic, childhood memory of having a tea-dipped madeleine with his invalid aunt.
Subsequently, more memories come flooding back. This is just one of many themes that persist through the 1.5 million words of the novel. (Remember, we’re talking the early 20th century. Nobody was binge-watching Netflix. Instead, they were binge-reading novels like this one, which was written and published over a period of 13 years—which means it lasted longer then Mad Men and almost as long as Game Of Thrones.)
Since then, “Proust’s madeleine” has become a metaphor for (among other things) involuntary memories triggered by food.
If only Proust had been eating a pizza. For many of us, pizza is our Proust’s madeleine.
This past week, my wife, her father and I all made a one-hour drive through South Jersey to partake of The Famous & Original King Of Pizza in Cherry Hill. This is a legendary local joint. Maybe not possessing the same cachet as Pepe’s or Sally’s, it's still a standout in South Jersey pizza lore. Plus, it’s a pizza of The Fabulous Honey Parker’s youth.
We ordered a pizza (there’s only one size, and it’s big). It was half cheese and half veggie. Yes, I know: veggie pizza seems an odd choice. But my father-in-law is a traditional Philly guy for whom you’d imagine all pizza has red sauce. And if this white veggie pie is one of his go-tos, I’m in.
The (cash-only) pizza arrived at the table. Half cheese, half veggie. It looked great. I took a slice of the cheese side because, as you know, cheese pizza is the pizza where nothing can hide.
The molten mozzarella and hot, hot tomato sauce was flowing off the pizza like lava. (It could have rested for another minute, but you know how it is with pizza anticipation—no patience, no rules.)
I took a bite. It was glorious. If Dave Portnoy were there, he would’ve given it a fair score—probably in the mid-7s. Honey was taking a bite, and she was saying, “Oh, yeah. That’s the taste of high school.”
And there it is: Proust’s madeleine--or Proust’s pizza. Food conjuring nostalgia of a time gone by for Honey Parker. This wasn’t so much of a Proust pie for moi. My pizza of memories is a little more well done and isn’t quite so molten.
When I get just the right bite, I’m transported back to New York's Grand Central station before it was overhauled with a lower-level food court. There was a pizza counter near the Lexington Ave entrance. It was called Caruso’s. It was a reheated, oregano-forward giant slice. I almost always had it with a big beer in a giant Coca-Cola cup. We’d buy them both and run to our train, which was always the last possible train home, and it was great.
Another of Honey’s Proust pizzas is a place called Vitale’s. She hasn’t had that pizza since she was a girl, because the recipe died with the man who created it. Apparently, I’ve come close to replicating it, and will continue trying.
My primo Proustian pizza was a New York-style pizza that came from a place in southern Connecticut called Vinny’s. It was a revelation, especially with its big, charred bubbles. The big charred pizza bubble is a distinct Proustian pizza trigger for me. They often take me back to a time in that house on Pinecroft Road that no longer exists. I think I was age four. It may have been my first pizza ever.
Pizza nostalgia alive.
None of these pizzas would ever end up on a national top 10 list. But they live in a place in our hearts and minds that triggers sentimental affection for pizzas past and the people associated with them.
What is your Proust’s madeleine, your Proustian pizza? Where is it from, what does it evoke, and how does it make you feel? I’m curious. And if we get enough answers, your reply will end up in a subsequent Saturday afternoon pizza post.
And never fear: first names only. Totally anonymous if you say so. (If you received this as an email, just hit reply. If you’re reading it in the blog, just click here.)
If you're ready to take a stab at creating your own, homemade pizza memories, here's the book that can show the way: Free The Pizza: A Simple System For Making Great Pizza Whenever You Want With The Oven You Already Have. It's the simplest and perhaps silliest book that can get you started. (It's also an award winner.)
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, pro-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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