The world seems reassuringly orderly when broken down into fours: four seasons of the year, four corners of the square, four Beatles if you don’t count Billy Preston, Brian Epstein, George Martin, Yoko, or four other likely contenders. And four fundamental tastes on the tongue: sour, sweet, bitter, salt.
I was caught off guard, then, to learn that food science actually cops to a fifth basic taste, one that has enjoyed full recognition in Japan for over a hundred years, but has only recently found favor with the American scientific establishment. Michael Pollan’s new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation devotes a fair amount of time to this fifth sensation, umami. It’s a kind of “savory,” “hearty,” “meaty” taste found in parmesan cheese, dried mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, and a Japanese fish stock called dashi. Pollan considers one basis for the near-universal appeal of umami:
“One curious fact I stumbled on in my research was that human breast milk is rich in this particular taste, and contains relatively large amounts of glutamate—as it happens, nearly the same amount of glutamate as an equivalent amount of dashi. … [C]ould it be that, for us, the taste of foods rich in umami also sounds deep Proustian echoes, bearing us back to memories, however faint, of our very first food?”
Pollan is referencing here, of course, the famous madeleine from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, a cookie that evokes a lifetime of memories when bitten into. This is perhaps the ultimate food-based literary allusion, so it’s not surprising that the madeleine shows up elsewhere in the course of Cooked. On the broader question of why cooking aromas, in general, appeal to us, Pollan writes:
“When we still ate hundreds of different plant species, we relied on our senses of smell and taste to navigate a far more complicated food landscape. So it’s no wonder that those types of cooking (such as meat over fire) that happen to generate scents and flavors borrowed from the plant world’s extensive chemical vocabulary (and perhaps especially from the rich dialect of ripe fruit) would stimulate us as they do. … [The smell of cooking] is Proustian through and through, offering a rich trove of sensory evocations that take us off the frontier of the present and throw us back on the past, ours and and, possible, our species.’”
Coming across multiple uses of the madeleine allusion within a single book, I was reminded of other times I’ve seen this particular literary reference invoked. Yes indeed: Proust’s madeleine is the Proust’s madeleine that transports me back to past encounters with Proust’s madeleine. For example, the federal guidelines that govern the admissibility of trial evidence allow for the brief, narrow use of otherwise inadmissible evidence when needed solely for the purpose of jogging a witness’s foggy memory. I’ve heard this explained on several occasions, by several different people, as akin to Proust’s employment of the madeleine device.
We typically think of literary allusions as little reminders of the original work, a kind of—last time, I promise!—Proust’s madeleine that takes us back to the larger memory of reading the text from which the allusion was plucked, of the book’s broader story and the tone or texture of the writing. But for all the popularity of the madeleine allusion, how many people have actually sat down with all 3,000 pages of Remembrance of Things Past? (Not me, I am sad to admit.) Writers who use this allusion, then, can’t really bank on their audiences’ familiarity with the novel, but instead must simply be counting on the ubiquity of the reference, as divorced from everything else in its book of origin.
So maybe the communicative value of some allusions isn’t, as I have always assumed, that they evoke memories of other books we’ve read, but instead that they connect us with a shadow body of floating literary characters and devices, their stories whittled down from generation-spanning narratives to narrow snippets of folk wisdom. These allusions can reach many more people, and so have their own appeal as a means of shared and broadly accessible storytelling. At the same time, though, I certainly don’t mean to suggest we should all just stop reading the massive and formative novels that gave us these popular references. But if there’s room on our tongues for an additional, heretofore unknown taste bud, there may yet be room in the world for multiple means of connection with a single, longstanding allusion.