Marcel Proust, famed French novelist, was born on this date in 1871 in the Paris borough of Auteuil (the south-western sector of the then-rustic 16th arrondissement) at the home of his great-uncle, two months after the Treaty of Frankfurt formally ended the Franco-Prussian War. He was born during the violence that surrounded the suppression of the Paris Commune, and his childhood corresponded with the consolidation of the French Third Republic. Much of his voluminous novel, In Search of Lost Time, concerns the vast changes, most particularly the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle classes, that occurred in France during the Third Republic and La Belle Époque.
Proust’s father, Adrien Proust, was a prominent pathologist and epidemiologist, studying cholera in Europe and Asia. He wrote numerous articles and books on medicine and hygiene. Proust’s mother, Jeanne Clémence (Weil), was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family from Alsace. Proust was raised in his father’s Catholic faith, and was baptized on 5th August 1871, at the church of Saint-Louis d’Antin, and later confirmed as a Catholic, even though he never formally practiced Catholicism. He later became an atheist and dabbled in mysticism.
By the age of 9, Proust had had his first serious asthma attack, and thereafter he was considered a sickly child. Proust spent long holidays in the village of Illiers. This village, combined with recollections of his great-uncle’s house in Auteuil, became the model for the fictional town of Combray, where some of the most important scenes of In Search of Lost Time take place. (Illiers was renamed Illiers-Combray in 1971 on the occasion of the Proust centenary celebrations.) In 1882, at the age of 11, Proust became a pupil at the Lycée Condorcet, but his education was disrupted by his illness. Despite this he excelled in literature, receiving an award in his final year. Thanks to his classmates, he was able to gain access to some of the salons of the upper bourgeoisie, providing him with copious material for In Search of Lost Time.
Despite his poor health, Proust served a year (1889–90) in the French army, stationed at Coligny Barracks in Orléans, an experience that provided a lengthy episode in The Guermantes’ Way, part three of In Search of Lost Time. As a young man, Proust was a social climber and had a reputation as a snob and a dilettante when it came to his writing. Later on, because of this reputation he had trouble getting Swann’s Way, the first part of his large-scale novel, published in 1913. Proust attended the salons of Mme Straus, widow of Georges Bizet and mother of Proust’s childhood friend Jacques Bizet, of Madeleine Lemaire and of Mme Arman de Caillavet, one of the models for Madame Verdurin, and mother of his friend Gaston Arman de Caillavet, whose fiancée (Jeanne Pouquet) he claimed to be in love with. It is through Mme Arman de Caillavet that he made the acquaintance of Anatole France, her lover.
In an 1892 article published in Le Banquet entitled “L’Irréligion d’État” and again in a 1904 Le Figaro article entitled “La mort des cathédrales”, Proust argued against the separation of church and state, declaring that socialism posed a greater threat to society than the Church and emphasizing the latter’s role in sustaining a cultural and educational tradition.
Proust had a close relationship with his mother. To appease his father, who insisted that he pursue a career, Proust obtained a volunteer position at Bibliothèque Mazarine in the summer of 1896. After exerting considerable effort, he was granted sick leave that extended for several years until he was considered to have resigned. He never worked at another job, and he did not move from his parents’ apartment until after both had died. His life and family circle changed markedly between 1900 and 1905. In February 1903, Proust’s brother, Robert Proust, married and left the family home. His father died in November of the same year. Finally, his mother died in September 1905. She left him a considerable inheritance. His health throughout this period continued to deteriorate. Proust spent the last three years of his life mostly confined to his bedroom, sleeping during the day and working at night to complete his novel. He died of pneumonia and a pulmonary abscess in 1922. He was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
In Search of Lost Time is best remembered for its theme of involuntary memory, the most famous example being the “episode of the madeleine” which occurs early in the first volume. This episode begins:
Et dès que j’eus reconnu le goût du morceau de madeleine trempé dans le tilleul que me donnait ma tante (quoique je ne susse pas encore et dusse remettre à bien plus tard de découvrir pourquoi ce souvenir me rendait si heureux), aussitôt la vieille maison grise sur la rue, où était sa chambre, vint comme un décor de théâtre…
Yet again I had recalled the taste of a bit of madeleine dipped in linden-flower tea which my aunt gave me (although I did not yet know and must long await the discovery of why this memory made me so happy), immediately the old gray house on the street where her room was found, arose like a theatrical tableau…
Because of its prominence at the beginning of the novel, the madeleine has become emblematic of Proust’s culinary visions and the relationship between food and memory. I made obeisance to this notion with a recipe for madeleines here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/mary-magdalene/ While the classic madeleine and Proust have become inextricably entwined, In Search of Lost Time is loaded with detailed references to cooking apart from madeleines, and he frequently compares fine dishes with great music or art. There is a slight sense on occasion that Proust is deliberately going over the top in his praise of particular dishes – but it is only slight.
Proust compares Françoise, the family cook in Combray, to an artist, a goddess, a priestess, and a fairy-tale heroine, in his descriptions of her products. In her kitchen she stands “commanding the forces of nature which had become her assistants, as in fairy tales where giants hire themselves out as cooks.” Françoise also has a dark side, like all great protagonists in literature. One summer she makes asparagus every day because she wants to get rid of the pregnant scullery maid who has to pare the stalks, and who is highly allergic to them. Françoise has her greatest moment of glory when Monsieur de Norpois is invited to dinner and she sets out to make a masterpiece, which begins with combing the markets for the perfect ingredients, then laboring endlessly over every dish. The meal she prepares is York ham, jellied boeuf à la mode, a pineapple and truffle salad, and Nesselrode pudding. You can find a recipe for Nesselrode pudding here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/w-s-gilbert/ and I am sure the one that Françoise prepared was gorgeous. Proust compares her jellied beef to a Michelangelo sculpture, which I’d venture to say is getting into the hyperbole zone, but he can be forgiven. He also compares its crafting to his own work crafting words.
Here is a recipe. Boeuf à la mode can be served hot, or cold in aspic. Both are classics of Parisian haute cuisine, with the latter being legendary. Three points need noting. First, the traditional recipe uses at least one calf’s foot in the cooking broth so that it gels naturally. This process can be a little hit-and-miss, however. The broth may not get enough gelatin from one foot to gel properly. One answer is to use two or more calves’ feet. The other answer is to use some commercial gelatin in addition. Second, quatre épices (four spices) mix is usually a blend of pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. In French recipes, bouquet garni is often mentioned with little or no reference to what’s in it. This is because the actual contents of the bouquet garni are cook’s choice, and may vary from dish to dish. It can be made of whole stalks of herbs tied in a bundle, or fresh leaves tied in a muslin bag. For this dish you should use parsley, thyme, and bay leaf at minimum.
This dish is a 48-hour process at minimum: 24 hours to marinate the meat, and 24 hours to cook the meat, mold it, and let the molds set. If you are cooking this dish for Sunday dinner, therefore, you must start on Friday morning. I won’t mince words either. This is not a dish for beginners or even halfway experienced cooks. You must know exactly what you are doing to get the flavors right, AND to make the molded dish look attractive.
Bœuf à la mode en gelée
2.5 kg stewing beef, fat removed
800 ml beef stock
500 ml Sauternes or other sweet white wine
500 ml Madeira wine
250 gm carrots, peeled and sliced
200 gm of bacon or pickled pork, cut in 5 mm squares
100 gm sliced onions
50 ml champagne
40 gm beef fat (or pork fat)
3 whole cloves
2 egg whites
1 calf’s foot, cut in pieces
Put the beef in a large pot with 400 ml of Sauternes and 400ml of Madeira, so that the beef is submerged in the marinade. Add salt, pepper, and quartre épices to taste, cover, and let marinate for 24 hours.
Remove the beef from the marinade, and let it air dry. Cut slits all over the beef and insert the pieces of bacon in them. Heat a Dutch oven over high heat and add the fat. When it is hot sear the beef on all sides. Then flambé the pot with the champagne. Add the veal foot, carrots, onion, bouquet garni, cloves, stock, the rest of the Sauternes and Madeira, the marinade. Adjust the salt and pepper to taste. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer, cover, and cook for 4 ½ hours.
[You can serve the beef hot at this point. For chilled beef in aspic there are extra steps.]
Remove the beef and carrots from the broth and reserve. Strain the broth through muslin or cheesecloth. Put the strained broth in a clean pot and heat over medium heat. Beat the egg whites and pour them into the hot broth. As the whites cook they will clarify the broth. When the broth is clear, strain it through muslin or filter papers.
Cut the beef in small slices. Pour a small amount of broth into the number of individual molds you are using, or into one large mold. Let the broth set in the refrigerator. Next layer carrots and beef pieces decoratively until you have filled the molds. Pour broth into the molds so that the last layer of beef and carrots is covered. Refrigerate, and let set. To unmold, dip the molds briefly in hot water, invert them over a plate, and the molded beef and carrots should pop out when tapped.