Today is the birthday of the French novelist Marcel Proust. He is perhaps best know for his novel, The Remembrance of Things Past. In one of the work’s most renowned passages, the narrator is transported to his childhood in Belle Epoque France upon tasting a simple petite madeleine:
But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
This connection between memory and taste persists in popular culture. Anton Ego in Ratatouille is also flung back to simple childhood memories upon the first taste of the film’s eponymous dish; likewise for Tony Soprano upon tasting some cappicola. I have heard that smell is the sense most associated with memory. And because smell plus taste equals flavor, this theory should apply to food with equal force.
All of us have our own version of Proust’s madeleine. And like Proust, such foods fling us headlong back into childhood, albeit a rose-colored one lacking in verisimilitude. But that’s no matter. When we eat certain foods, we must face—good or bad—the ghosts of loved ones long gone; weddings that never lived up to their promise; but also birthday parties, the birth of a child, or one’s first kiss.
|Back in the Day|
My “madeleine,” is the hot dog, though not just any hot dog. It has to be a hot dog from Capt’n Franks, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on the Outer Banks. Capt’n Franks opened in 1975, when I was a mere five years old, and I’ve been making an almost annual pilgrimage for the last 38 years! Capt’n Franks is located on the Outer Banks at Mile Post 4½, and back in the late Seventies, MP 4½ was in the middle of nowhere. It was pretty much the last stop for food on the way back home in the back seat of my Dad's canary yellow Toyota Corona.
|Oh How Much Has Changed! (But Still the Same Great Dogs!)|
I still remember the time I was old enough to eat an entire footlong hot dog all by myself, and later with chili! I also remember mastering the Galaga arcade game in the back near the restrooms, but not the Ms. PacMan next to it. (She was a fickle creature.) I also remember the time a friend of mine ate 10 corn dogs and my Dad paying for each one with nary a complaint. (While my friend’s name is long forgotten, we all still recount this story as if it were yesterday.) As a kid, my favorite was a plain dog with ketchup, mustard, and relish—still my go-to dog. As a I grew older into a teenager—less impressionable but no wiser—I disdained Capt’n Franks as lacking in “sophistication.” Eventually, I got over myself.
It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I really began to appreciate Capt’n Franks and the memories that welled up in my eyes. Now, no trip to the Outer Banks is complete without a stop at Capt’n Franks. Just recently, I visited there with my two boys—twice. And while the Galaga and Ms. PacMan games are long gone—replaced by the T-shirt counter—it still has the same effect on me. Every time, when I see the old, faded pictures of Capt’n Franks from the Seventies lining the walls (including the one of Johnny Cash!), I tell my boys, “I remember when it looked like that!” Fortunately for now, they are young enough that they say, quite earnestly, “wow, Dad!” I also know that in a few years, that same statement will drip with disdain and sarcasm. But, if all goes well, they will come around just like I did and their childhood will come back to them in time while sharing some hot dogs and fries with their own children.
Happy Birthday Monsieur Proust!