The Proust Phenomenon – The Reason Baking Feels Nostalgic

Words: Robyn Samuels

When you think of baking, it might be all measuring cups and scales, but the very act of baking is romantic. Sure, it might require intense precision and methodical application, but even that is deeply intentional. The purpose of baking is not solely to sate one’s sweet tooth, it evokes nostalgia and stirs up childhood memories. Sometimes, we even go against the grain and defy recipe instructions simply because that’s how your ‘mother did it’. Well, it turns out there’s a reason why baking is so nostalgic and it’s called The Proust phenomenon.

A Simpler Time

Like many home cooks, I was never formally taught how to bake, but I always had the best seat in the house – perched on the counter beside my mother. Through watching her whisk batter and knead dough that turned into vetkoek, I unintentionally fell in love with baking.

Too young to play with the old kids, too old to play with the young’uns, the kitchen was my playground and baking, my companion. Here, I got unfettered access to the greatest bakes and in exchange for helping, I got the battered spoon while my sisters fought over the scraped-down bowl. As gratifying as that was, sharing dessert, conversation and laughs with family was always my favourite – reminiscing about it takes me back to a simpler time, when my only job was swaddling dough in warm blankets and finding a resting place for it to rise.

Whenever I open my mother’s cookbooks, I’m reminded of memories embedded within the tapestry of recipes – ones shared by friends-turned-family, and the cakes she baked the night before our birthdays while we were asleep. Recreating those same desserts and teatime treats always brings up fond childhood memories.

That’s the funny thing about nostalgia, it’s a montage of memories and a yearning for the past. More often than not, we take excerpts from isolated events and bridge gaps in memory with vague remembrances to create one big picture. I’ve just surmised at least 20 years’ worth of recollections and created a trailer of my childhood based on a befuddled timeline.

Why Is Baking Nostalgic?

Nostalgia is simply one’s recollected emotional state – the same way that happy memories might be associated with holidays and food brands that prominently featured throughout one’s childhood and adolescence. We commonly link memories to inanimate objects or nostalgic symbolisms like baking. Similarly, other sensory modalities have the ability to trigger memories – like hearing a certain song, which takes you back to a different place, time or event like your first big love or perhaps a heartbreak.

A citation titled Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding by Alan R. Hirsch states that “Nostalgia, unlike screen memory, does not relate to a specific memory, but rather to an emotional state. This idealized emotional state is framed within a past era, and the yearning for the idealized emotional state manifests as an attempt to recreate that past era by reproducing activities performed then and by using symbolic representations of the past. Idealized past emotions become displaced onto inanimate objects, sounds, smells and tastes that were experienced concurrently with the emotions.”

We commonly link memories to inanimate objects or nostalgic symbolisms like baking.

In a nutshell, this might explain why the smell of cinnamon apples or peanut butter cookies might transport you to your grandma’s home – or the smell of mothballs, in some cases. And it turns out that there’s actually a scientific term for this…

The Proust Phenomenon

Olfactory-evoked recall or odour-evoked memory occurs when an odour or scent evokes a past memory – usually a vivid memory with a positive association.

How is this even possible you ask? The olfactory lobe in the limbic system of the brain controls behavioural and emotional responses; it also helps retrieve/store memories and plays a crucial role in feeding responses. So, the proof is not only in the pudding, it’s also in smelling the pudding.

There are two types of odour memory. The first is when we recognise that we have smelled certain odours before. The other type is odour-evoked memory, in which autobiographical memories and associations are prompted by smells.

While this phenomenon has been thoroughly researched by scientists, one of the most popular references originated from French novelist, Marcel Proust. In Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time (previously, Remembrance of Things Past), Proust writes about being flooded by past memories upon tasting a Madeleine dipped in tea.

‘No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.’

If you’ve ever walked past a bakery that immediately transported you to your childhood; tasted a dish you haven’t tried in years that triggered a forgotten memory, or perhaps smelled someone’s perfume that reminded you of a late family member, evoking a sense of melancholy, you’ll be familiar with this esoteric experience. For Proust or Charles Swann, it was Madeleine biscuits dipped in tea – not untypical for a Frenchman – I suppose everyone has that one dessert recipe that conjures childhood memories.

Locally, koe’sistas and peppermint tart are cemented in culture and saturated with memories – and sugar. While Malva pudding is a beloved dessert the nation over, for my family, the gold standard has and will always be Jan Ellis – aptly named after the Springbok rugby player, popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s. No one knows why, but rumour has it that it was his favourite pudding and the name stuck. Besides minor substitutions, like swapping out the baking soda for powder and self-rising flour, Jan Ellis is pretty similar to Malva, but never mistake the two! The sponge cake in Jan Ellis is inexplicably fluffier, and the buttery, caramelised sauce is creamier and richer – or at least that’s how I remember it.

What dessert makes you feel nostalgic?
Inspired? Recreate these South African desserts

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