The long-winded French author and part-time cake publicist Marcel Proust is infamous for his seven-novel, three-volume series of books most commonly known as Remembrance of Things Past. Lovers and haters alike of long-winded French literature recall that in the first novel, Swann’s Way, Proust famously takes a bite of a tea-soaked, scallop-edged cake called a madeleine. The memory makes him remember all this stuff from his childhood, and generally gets him all worked up.
“The sight of the Madeleine recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it,” he wrote. “Whence could it have come to me, this all powerful joy?”
Proust died in 1922, and since he was always looking to the past and not the future, he probably never imagined that the cookie-like cakes he immortalized would one day take hold abroad. But indeed they have. And, happily, modern American madeleines don’t much differ from the ones familiar to sensitive European literary types.
If you ever have been inside a Starbucks or that type of grocery store that sells thirty different kinds of imported olive oil but nary a roll of toilet paper, then chances are you have sampled or least seen a DonSueMor madeleine. DonSueMor was started in 1976 by the husband and wife team Don and Sue Morris. Today, longtime company employee Susan Davis is its CEO, and its Emeryville business office and warehouse is everything a budding entrepreneurial foodie might envy. The office is well-kept, with walls tastefully painted in soft, muted tones. There’s nothing gauche or obviously industrial here. The workers, clad in spotless white lab coats and hygienic if low-rideresque hairnets, appear healthy and non-disgruntled. It all seems suspiciously … European.
And speaking of the French, CEO Davis looks vaguely Gallic herself. Perhaps it’s her dark hair pulled back into a chignon, or maybe it’s the chic swingy earrings she’s wearing. And when Davis notes that she was a French lit major in college, it all starts to add up.
Besides the traditional lemon — the flavor Proust famously savors in his book — DonSueMor also makes a nonlemon “original” flavor, and a few years ago introduced a decadent chocolate-dipped variety. But Davis says the experimentation isn’t likely to extend much beyond that. “We’re not driven by fads of the market,” she vows.
Visitors to DonSueMor must sign a form promising not to give away any trade secrets before being allowed to explore the company’s factory. The scent of vanilla, lemon, sugar, and something buttery wafts through the building like a fine veil. There are huge blocks of pale yellow butter on a large and spotless steel table. Besides being refreshingly fattening, the ingredients also are all natural. Perhaps that’s only because Proust never wrote about butter-flavored Crisco — at least not that Proustian scholars are aware of.
A huge stainless steel oven takes up one corner of the room, and all the hairnetted workers stand far away. Marketing Director Zelda Servanti says the oven bakes eight thousand cakes an hour. After the little madeleines are baked to pale golden perfection, they are hand-inspected, carefully placed in white boxes, and whisked to all corners of the nation.
“She sent for one of those squat, little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been molded of a scallop in the fluted valve shell.”
With the steady and generous air of a queen, Davis strolls over to the large cooling rack and picks up a madeleine from one of the trays. “Have a cookie,” she offers. She gingerly cradles the delicate pastry as if it was a wee French baby and proudly presents it.
The fragrant morsel is still hot, and indeed it evokes a memory — a vague memory of a package of madeleines, a pint of vanilla ice cream, a crisp copy of the National Enquirer, and a very long line at Piedmont Grocery.
Davis recalls a separate occasion during which the neighborhood garbagemen were sent into spasms of rage and desire upon seeing the broken, unsalable cakes on the sidewalk. “They really liked the cookies and would often fight over them,” she says, smiling at the distant memory of the crazed blue-collar workers descending on the delicate pastries. The garbage men were probably reading Proust on their break and were overcome upon seeing them.
“And as soon as I had recognised the taste of the piece of the Madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me … the shapes of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness.”
So what are Davis and Servanti’s own special memories?
“Well, do you mean besides madeleines?” Davis asks politely, but there is a cautious quality to her voice, as if perhaps the question is a trap. “Hmmm,” she says thoughtfully, swinging her red earrings as she considers the question. It is quiet, silent as a monastery, and a clock slowly tick-tick-ticks in the background. Finally, the stillness is broken. “That would have to be baked bread fresh from the oven with lots of butter,” she declares with a broad smile.
And what about the recollections of the blond, Dutch-looking marketing director? Servanti furrows her brow and closes her eyes, recalling memories that we will never know and can only wonder about. And then she summons forth a remembrance of her own past: “That would have to be pot roast.”