Category Archives: word tasting notes

xanthoxylon

This word takes a lexical game of noughts and crosses to the nth degree. Indeed, looking at it, your eyes may be o o or x x; it looks as artificial as nylon, like something from sci-fi or fantasy. It reveals itself gradually, even acrimoniously. Tell me how it’s even pronounced.

When I look at it, in a little moment I see xantho – from a Greek root meaning ‘yellow’ – and xylon – which might look similar to, for instance, xylophone, and rightly so, because they share a root – meaning ‘wood’. So ‘yellow wood’ – which is correct, that’s where it comes from – and because in English we have this idea you can’t start a syllable with /ks/, we say “zantho” for xantho and “zylon” for xylon. Which is how it strikes my eyes: “zanthozylon.”

But when the two parts are put together and ready by people less familiar with Greek etymological elements, you get a single word that comes out as “zanthoksilon,” the dictionary pronunciation. Which kind of gives me a toothache. It sounds like a cross between an ocelot, an ox, and a Cylon (from Battlestar Galactica), from Xanth (a fantasy world created by Piers Anthony; most of the 38 books in the series have puns in their titles – I like Crewel Lye, subtitle A caustic yarn).

This word leads not into fantasy, however, but into botany. Which can be even more absorbing. Read this description of the plant:

Shrub 5 to 10 feet high, branches alternate, with scattered prickles, sharp, strong and straight. Leaves alternate, oddly pinnate, petiole round, often inerme, folioles 9 or 11 opposite, nearly sessile, ovate very sharp, with slight glandular serratures, somewhat downy beneath. Flowers in small sessile umbels, near the origin of young shoots, small and greenish. Diclinous polygamous, some shrubs bearing pistillate flowers, and others two kinds, both staminate and complete or perfect. These last have a 5 parted calyx with segments erect, oblong obtuse. Five stamens on the base of the gynophore, filaments subulate, anthers sagittate, 4 celled. Central gynophore divided into the stipes of the pistils, which are 3 or 4, oval, with a converging terete style and obtuse, stigma. Staminate flowers with an oval trifid abortive gynophore. Pistillate flowers with a smaller calyx. Capsules stipitate, elliptical punctate, reddish green, two valved, with one seed, oval and blackish.

That is from an 1830 book by C.S. Rafinesque, nicely quoted at Henriette’s Herbal Homepage. Such welters of technical descriptions have a curiously relaxing effect on me. I suppose they may cause some people to tense up.

Anyway, it’s a shrub with fairly standard-shaped leaves. It is noted for some medicinal qualities. It is used for, among other things, digestion and relief of rheumatism. It has a citrusy smell and taste, but is astringent.

The acrimony is not felt at first, when the bark or liquid is taken in the mouth, but unfolds itself gradually by a burning sensation on the tongue and palate.

Its stems may have a numbing effect, and it has a common name of Toothache bush:

In toothache, it is only a palliative, as I have ascertained on myself, the burning sensation which it produces on the mouth, merely mitigating the other pain, which returns afterwards.

But at least while you’re reading the botanist’s notes, the pain disappears. Or else, depending on your leaning, the pain appears, to disappear when you are done reading.

You will not find this word exactly as such in Wikipedia. The English pronunciation has trumped the etymology, and Latinate endings have trumped the Greek; it’s in there as Zanthoxylum. It comes in a few different kinds. I will allow one more observation from our 1830 botanist – an observation that presents an acrimony that unfolds gradually:

This genus, whose name means yellow wood, and which many botanists write Zanthoxylum by mistake, has many anomalies, because accuracy appears of very little moment to the Linnaean botanists.

clackled

My friend Trish’s daughter Nenya is a neologist. I’ve tasted one of her creations before: scratchative. (Trish’s husband, Jaba, is likely where Nenya inherited this from – he’s the coiner of fugxury, among others.) Today Trish told me of another word Nenya has come up with: clackled.

You probably won’t guess what it means from the sound, although once you know what it means, it may seem suitable – and will surely tell you a little bit about Nenya’s perceptions. It’s obviously formed on a phonaesthematic basis – made of bits that just sound right because of impressions picked up from other words. Kids do that a lot, and adults do it a fair bit too.

Nenya obviously knows inflectional and derivational morphology; she has the –ed ending on the word, making an adjectival past participle and implying a verb clackle or, perhaps, a noun clackled (yes, we can make certain kinds of adjectives by putting –ed on nouns – the kind that signify the noun having been imposed on what it modifies, or being worn by it). Either way, the word means something has happened to its subject.

But Nenya also knows what just sounds right to her. So do most people.

Now, there are all sorts of words this word can bring to mind. Cackle, heckle, tackle, trickle, spackle, pickle, shackle… some of them are formed with the verbal –le frequentative suffix, like dazzle and twinkle; some of them (an overlapping set) involve binding or other forms of physical contact, and some (again overlapping) involve messiness. The cl calls forth cloth, clothes, class, clock, click, clap; some of them are things that may encompass or apply to the skin.

What Nenya uses clackled for is ‘all wrapped and twisted up in bedclothes’. If you’re the sort of person who twists and turns in your sleep, you may wake up with the sheets and covers all twisted around you and difficult to disengage from. To be in this condition is to be clackled.

That interests me. I find clackled rather hard, percussive, like clap and clatter, which bedclothes never are (well, if yours are, maybe don’t tell me about it). But yes, it has the close-to-the-skin cl, and it has the catching mess of ackled. It also crackles as words enjoyed by children often do.

But it’s not to me to say whether I find it suitable or not. Might as well say orange doesn’t seem very orangey. The word is clackled; it is there, and when you are awake to it, you already cannot escape it.

W

I guess I’m doing a letter tasting today. But this letter has piqued my attention a few times just recently.

On Sunday, for one thing, I was in the antiques market, and I saw a set of cloth bookmarks embroidered Warren. I could have bought them, but I didn’t see it as worthwhile. Why would I have bought them? For my dad. That’s his name. He has a lot of books, too, but some musty old cloth bookmarks probably wouldn’t be the number one thing he wanted.

So that brought the initial W to mind. Also recently, I noticed that one of my friends has a middle initial W. I have no idea what it stands for. I should ask.

But there’s so much more to W. It’s the beginning of some very common names (especially William, one of which I work with), though not so many other words. It’s in the bottom third of the alphabet in terms of frequency of use. It’s worth 4 points in Scrabble. And it has a few striking cultural associations.

One of them is George W. Bush, of course, who went by “Dubya” to distinguish him from his father, George H.W. Bush (the W’s stood for the same thing: Walker). For many people, that’s a rather bitter taste to the letter. But the buffed-down “dubya” version at least takes it a little away from the letter itself. I would rather have another W politician: Kathleen Wynne, the premier of Ontario.

Another cultural association is a magazine, W, originally Women’s Wear Daily, an oversized glossy fashion arbiter (but split the letter and you get VV, which at least among some Canadians stands for Value Village, which is a very economical place to get clothing). Another is a chain of modernist hotels (W Hotels, obviously) run by Starwood and aimed at youthful travellers (but just the ones with an adult amount of cash).

And there are Watts: you’ll see a W on every lightbulb. There is tungsten, which is found in some bulbs and has the symbol W on the periodic table (from German Wolfram). There is the first letter of every US radio station east of the Mississippi (versus K in the west). And of course there is the world wide web, www.

Which is… three letters or six? I mean, it’s a double U, right?

Well, now, in French, they call it double V. Doesn’t that make more sense? This pair of plunging necklines – or fangs, or notches, or or… It’s not UU, right?

Not now it’s not. But it’s time I broke the news to you about U.

You know how in Latin inscriptions all the u’s are v’s? SENATVS POPVLVSQVE ROMANVS and all that. Well, in Latin there was just one letter, shaped V, and it stood for a vowel in some places and a consonant (classically pronounced [w]) in others: VENI VIDI VICI. These days we render the vowels in Latin as u and the consonants as v. But just because that’s what we’ve been doing in English… for the last couple of centuries, but not much more than that.

Seriovsly! The shape u appeared several hundred years ago from scribes writing v cursively. It came to be a variant form of the letter. They were used interchangeably; some printers would prefer one for the start of a word and the other for elsewhere, but it was not formalized. Look at 16th and 17th century texts and you uuill see. Even in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755, they are treated as one letter – although by that time the practice was well established of the new u shape being for the vowel and the old v shape being for the consonant.

Old English didn’t actually need a v consonant, because there was no phoneme /v/ in Old English; [v] was just how /f/ was pronounced between two vowels. The French influence helped English come to treat /v/ as a sound in its own right, since French already had that as a separate phoneme and English borrowed a lot of words from it.

But one thing Old English did have as a phoneme was /w/. Yes, they had a /w/ phoneme before they had a /v/. How did they write that? Not with V! Old English used a character borrowed from runes, called wynn and shaped like a cross between a p and a y: ƿ. If you read modern editions of Old English texts, they use a w in place of it for reasons that are probably obvious.

So why did wynn lose? Continental type sets, mainly. Same reason we no longer have eth (ð) and thorn (þ), which would actually be very useful. Printing was invented on the European continent, and they didn’t have those letters. So eth and thorn were replaced by th (and, in a few instances for a while, y as in ye olde), and wynn was replaced by two U’s, which had been in use on the continent for some centuries already to stand for /w/, since the Latin /w/ had shifted to /v/ in many places, causing the consonant V to stand for, well, /v/. The two U’s could be shaped as either UU or VV at first, but the practice of using VV won out, and a single letter W came to be. English is certainly not the only language in the area to use that letter – although other Germanic ones used it for a fricative, not a glide. We got the practice from Norman French. Standard Parisian French, on the other hand, resisted the letter W for many centuries.

The result of all that is a letter that, unlike the others, has a three-syllable name (how ironic that it should be the one we have to say three times: double u double u double u dot whatever dot com) – and a name that does not use the letter itself in the spelling. It is a contrary, uncertain letter, redundant yet necessary, the letter of questions (who? what? when? where? why?), sharp in shape yet smooth in sound, an old sound with a new form but named after an old form of that new form, presenting to the eyes allure or threat: V-necks or fangs? Could be a fifty-fifty chance… or, in Roman numerals, a five-five chance.

Five-five? Yes, W can be a little pun on the US speed limit, 55. But you know speed limits are made to be transgressed. Take a risk: Double you or nothing.

misophonia, misophony

Doug Linzey has drawn my attention to the article “The Horrible Anger You Feel at Hearing Someone Chewing Is Called Misophonia.” Ah, misophonia. Not a word in the OED per se, but made of serviceable combining parts: miso, from Greek μισο miso, from μισεῖν misein ‘hate’ (verb), and phon, from Greek ϕωνος phonos, from ϕωνή phoné ‘voice’ but referring to sound in general, and the ia that makes it a noun of condition (like schizophrenia). We have misanthropy, ‘hatred of people’, and misoneism, ‘hatred of new things’, and we have telephone and microphone and all those other phone words. So hating sounds is easily called misophony, and a condition in which you hate sounds is misophonia. Sounds good, no? So to speak.

Now, I don’t feel horrible anger at hearing someone chewing. Heck, I was recently in front of someone on a bus who was chewing gum so loudly it was almost drowning out everything else (it sounded like a gruesome sci-fi sound effect), and I didn’t feel anything more than mild annoyance and greater curiosity. I do feel actual pain in response to certain kinds of loud, sharp noises, but not anger. If I feel distaste for a certain noise, it’s typically because of bad associations: it kept me awake or otherwise disturbed me several times, perhaps. I don’t like the sound a phone ringing, but just because it’s so demanding. I’m not sure any of that is misophonia.

Doug tells me he experiences something like misophonia in response to certain radio and TV personalities’ voices. Not horrible anger, perhaps, but certainly irritation. He has long disliked Jian Ghomeshi’s voice (way ahead of the curve on that one); he doesn’t like Rex Murphy’s either (I bet there’s a club for people who dislike Rex Murphy’s voice), but he tolerates it on occasion; and he used to be OK with Stuart McLean, but since McLean started trying to be a cross between Garrison Keillor and W.O. Mitchell he has to turn him off – actually, I’m right with him on that one: his theme music makes me dash for the off button before I can hear him speak. And if wanting to turn off the radio or TV as soon as you hear someone counts as misophonia, Ben Folds is on the list for me too, as are a number of singers featured in commercials, and, come to think of it, ukulele strumming too – just because of overexposure.

That’s not a medical condition, though. The misophonia – or, in Dutch, misofoniedescribed by the University of Amsterdam Academic Medical Center is a psychiatric condition, much stronger, not just a matter of taste. There is debate over whether it should be a diagnosis included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. So real misophonia would be to garden-variety misophony – just hating sound like we hate bad smells or certain foods – as, say, bipolar disorder is to moodiness.

Which means if you simply miss euphonia, if you’re mainly miffed at messy phonetics, if the sound of a phone musters your ire, if you’re nettled at slurping or munching, you are experiencing what we can call misophony but do not necessarily have a clinically problematic case of misophonia.

It’s a rather euphonious word itself, isn’t it, misophonia? Mellifluous. It has two nasal consonants and two voiceless fricatives, and the rest are vowels. If you feel misophony towards stops (/b d g p t k/) or affricates or even voiced fricatives, this word is perfectly fine for you. Also if you dislike mid or low front vowels or high back vowels. But, honestly, if you have a problem with those, you really have to recuse yourself from speech communication altogether.

Maybe we can add some extra morphemes to specify the kind of misophony or misophonia. Hate the sound of chewing? Misomasticophony, perhaps (though that does sandwich a Latin root between two Greek ones). Hate the sound of a phone ringing? Misotelephonophony. And if you are driven to rage at the sound of someone slurping soup in a sushi restaurant, that would be misomisophonia. (Also, if you have that, stay away from me.)

descant

Descant. For me, it decants to a song, a play, a magazine, a poem, a dance.

Of course to a song; descant comes from Latin dis ‘apart’ and cantus ‘song’ by way of French. It referred originally to part singing, especially the highest part, and these days usually refers to a special high line added above the melody. I first became aware of the term and the concept when I was a child at church in Banff, at Christmastime. On the last verse of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Inge Sheppard – a good soprano of German extraction, and host of the glühwein party after the midnight service – would come out on the top with “O come! O come!” and a line of crystal diffractions of the melody following. This, I learned, was a descant, which I took to calling a “desk calendar.” To my father’s credit, though he was the one who taught me to pun, he never said “She descant keep herself from doing it.” Well, not in my earshot, at least.

The next distinctive sighting of this word, for me, was in the play Richard III by Shakespeare. The title character, a hunchback, in his opening soliloquy – the one that starts “Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of York” – says,

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity

Obviously he’s not singing a high line. This is a figurative extension: he means comment on it, muse on it, wax philosophical on it. And so we have a paradox in action: the high-flown poetry and the word for a high-floating voice take an indecent descent into scandal, filling five acts before the scoundrel is chastened.

The next thread of sound that separates from the choral mass for me for this word is a magazine, Descant, a book-thick Canadian literary organ of considerable quality. Its candle is made all the more incandescent for me by its having published a prose poem of mine, in an issue focused on dance and edited by Mary Newberry (a lovely person worth knowing).

Alas, I have learned just yesterday that Descant is ceasing publication. Its funds are scanted, and now Canadian literature will likewise be scanted. This is sad. To honour it, or at least to remember it, I present here what they presented for me those few years ago, my descant on dance and dancer, dance as a dancer’s incandescent descant.

Your Feet

I have an issue with your feet. Your feet, your two bound servants, your two eternal cigarettes you snuff out on the stage with telegraphic stuttering, your feet, your feet, that you disown and bind to stumps, your feet that launch you into air and hold you hovering, drifting, fluttering, twisting, your feet, your feet, your feet feet feet feet arms are waving, hands sweep smoothly like gulls in glycerine, your nose your chin your washboard chest, your tits that are nothing but dots, your stomach like a soft-shelled crab, all pulling upwards, frightened upwards, lifting high and pushing, urging, all by force of repulsion and fear of your feet, your feet, your underlying unacknowledged candy ribbon-wrapped stilts, two bunches of cracked firewood, cracked and dirty tar-stained bloodstained ribbon-wrapped glue-bound dripping lit torches burning with a fire that creeps up, up, up and up your legs, the pain, the flames, the hellish earth, the planet, curling smoke from frantic tapping to snuff out the agony, everything fleeing, reaching to stay up above it, and the more you snuff it the fiercer it burns and the bones, the serpent muscles, brown dot nipples, chimney throat, razor chin, straining nose, gothic cheekbones, boiling eyes, hair, arms, fingers flickering into the smoky ceiling, all are fire, all are the flame and nothing but the flame that peels and curls and furls and arcs to the lighting grid, a body of flame that only wants to escape from flame, the fire from the wood from the feet that shoots through your insect legs and forgetting itself screams for heaven and cannot for even the length of a breath last away from the earth, but leaps and smokes and strives to lie in the blackening blue, and you flicker and burn like a moth with its wings on fire, and in all of this I can’t even see your feet. Take off those shoes, touch them to me, ignite me now.

poutine

Right now I’m in the part of Canada that has the best food: Quebec. And I’m in the part of Quebec that has the best food: Charlevoix. Québécois food is not precious, pretentious, status-hungry; it’s plain old enjoyable, but deeply, caringly so. Starch, fat, salt, sugar, and alcohol are your friends.

Quebec’s most widely popular culinary invention is also one of its most basic and demotic: poutine. It’s a Canadian classic, like Nanaimo bars (which are from the other side of the country, true), but easier to make. It’s not originally from Charlevoix – it’s apparently from the Montreal area. But you can get it in any pub in the country now, and quite a few other places too. Especially cafeterias at ski hills. It’s absolutely the classic ski fuel.

We didn’t have poutine in Alberta when I was a kid – it was invented in Quebec in the 1950s or ’60s, but didn’t start to catch on across the country until the later ’80s – but we had something that was two-thirds there. When I would go skiing, my lunch pretty much always involved French fries with gravy. Gravy is a classic on French fries in Canada, though fast food chains from America don’t seem to know that. Actually, Americans don’t seem to understand gravy on French fries in general: when I was in grad school in the Boston area, I tried asking for gravy on my fries once and they looked at me like I was a green man from Mars who had stepped off a flying saucer and asked where I could find the narcotics. I found this a bit gobsmacking, since gravy and fries are both such American standards. But I digress. (Some Americans have come close to the discovery with a thing called “disco fries.” Disco? They just need some very.)

So anyway, as soon as everyone in Anglo-Canada heard what they were doing with fries and gravy in Quebec, they all said, “Yeah!” What were they doing? Adding cheese curds. Cheese is a big thing in Quebec – actually, the best cheeses I’ve ever had have been from Quebec, and I’ve had a lot of different cheeses – and cheese curds are very popular. You can get them in bags next to the cash register in a chain grocery store. (I know; I saw them in a Metro in La Malbaie just this afternoon.) Curds are handy lumps, so you don’t even have to shred the cheese (though I have seen that version of poutine too, in pubs in Anglo-Canada). It may sound like a bit of an unholy mess – according to one story, that’s actually where it got its name; poutine is supposedly Quebec slang for a mess (there are other purported etymologies, including some relating it to pudding, which fail to account for the d/t alteration) – but actually so what? It’s delicious.

And, as I mentioned, perfect if you’ve been doing physical activity outside in cold weather. So when we went in for lunch today after a morning of skiing in –15˚C at Le Massif here in Charlevoix, you know what I was going to have.

Would you believe that in the cafeteria at a ski area in Quebec food central they don’t have poutine?

Maybe it’s because it was early season and they didn’t see it as worthwhile to fire up the chip fryer. It really wasn’t busy there. But daaaaaaamn. And, let me tell you, one of the joys of ordering poutine in Quebec is hearing them say the word in a Québécois accent. At Mont-Tremblant, I dined out longer on the [pu ˈtsɪən] than I did on the poutine itself.

So obviously I was pouting. We had to have some for supper. And we did, in the lobby bar here at the Manoir Richelieu, made the right way, and very satisfying. A good poutine will always leave a good taste in your mouth.

IMG_2199_500

Is there a bad poutine? There is if you get into politics. Actually, there are two bad political poutines. (Word just wanted to change poutines to poutiness. Which, with one letter, change from a thing to its absence – or a reaction thereto.) The first is Vladimir Poutine. This is not a joke; this is how you transliterate Путин in French – and you get a more accurate pronunciation than the Bush-style “poot’n.” It just happens that a crypto-Soviet satrap shares a name with the ultimate Franco-Canadian basse cuisine. Just imagine if the president of Italy were called Giorgio Pizza and you get an idea.

In Canada, there’s another political reference with a bad taste: Pierre Poutine. This is the (obviously) fake name to which a phone number was registered that was used in what is now called the Robocall scandal. Voters in several ridings who were likely to vote against the Conservatives received robocalls (pre-recorded computerized phone calls) giving them false information about their polling station. The name Pierre Poutine is easily perceived as a snotty slap at Quebec (and parties more popular with it) by a party associated with western Canada and anti-Quebec attitudes. Which just added further bad optics to an illegal activity.

I have to assume that anyone who is fluent in French also has a taste of another off-colour word when they have the taste of poutine in their mouth: putaine, a negative-toned word for ‘prostitute’ that’s often used as an expletive. The vowels are not the same but they are similar. I’m not sure how that affects the tone of the word in French. But it doesn’t seem to hurt the popularity of the dish.

There are a lot of variations on poutine now. There’s a restaurant in Montreal called La Banquise that has more than 30 types of poutine (mostly relying on added ingredients). I’ve eaten there. It’s good. So are many, though not all, of the precious artisanal variations available in Toronto.

But there’s just one word poutine. And you cannot say it accurately to the Quebec French accent while staying within English phonotactics. So shut up and eat.

madeleine

Memories. You can taste them.

Tastes bring them back, in fact. Tastes and smells. Smells do it so accurately – a hand cream or shampoo or floor cleaner and I can almost see the place from my childhood where I smelled it then. Or the taste of something I haven’t had in so…

We know what a taste trigger of a memory is, a little ping into the wall of memory that cracks it and releases a flood. It’s Proust’s madeleine.

Remember Proust’s madeleine? “Everyone” “knows” about Proust’s madeleine. Actually, the first time I heard about it I was quite irritated. I was driving my dad’s car home from downtown Edmonton, having ushered a show at the Citadel Theatre, and I had CBC Radio on and some talking people were talking. “We all know about Proust,” said one, “that he ate a madeleine and…”

No, I didn’t. Who is Proust? And what is a madeleine? And why should I know? It was like my first time, as a child, visiting an Anglican church (on my first visit to Toronto, too, as it happens) and being very put out when everyone else seemed to know exactly where to turn to in their prayer books and what lines to recite by heart, theretofore unheard of by me. Do you mind?

Well. Proust dipped a madeleine, a little biscuit, famous from Commercy in France, in a cup of tea – no, actually, of limeflower tea, or tisane, or what some Anglophone tea-makers are trying to call teasan but no I don’t think so no – and memories of his childhood came flooding back. Flooding back. And apparently Proust is one of the greatest novelists of all time and he wrote an extraordinarily long novel that people are still studying and arguing over (those 32 or so who have read it, anyway) and it was so long he couldn’t manage to see the ass end of it off to press before he was toast, pushing up limeflowers himself. And here’s an author on Slate (nice web magazine, Slate, they sometimes publish me, though I never find out in advance because it’s always a pick-up from The Week) going through baking exercises to see if he can produce a madeleine of just the right kind of crumbs that Proust wrote of stimulating memories. Proust wrote it so we must replicate it or diet trying. Because that is what people do: Someone or something becomes famous and people revere it and argue over it and rearrange their kitchens for it because it is famous. Mona Lisa. Tell me why the Mona Lisa is so much better than any of several paintings by Gerhard Richter or Andrew Wyeth. Because it’s so famous. Life is a succession of idols to burn incense before, apparently.

I’ve never really understood why people would rather argue over, for instance, whether Kant said this or that, exactly, than over whether this or that idea Kant expressed is more optimally in correspondence with observation and experience. And yet there are scholars whose whole career is based on that. Because famous person. Don’t burn your fingertips trying to write with that stick of smouldering incense.

What? Oh. Yes. Sorry, easily incensed. Madeleines. I haven’t eaten one, as far as I can remember. (Wouldn’t it be delicious irony if I had, sometime in my youth, but had forgotten it? I probably have.) But I also haven’t read Proust’s magnum opus, Remembrance of Things Past. No, no, sorry, the title that everyone knows and refers to has been corrected. That may sound better because it’s the famous title, but really it’s actually In Search of Lost Time. No, actually, it’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Proust, that crafty beggar, wrote it in French.

Look, I read Joyce’s Finnegans Wake end to end when I was in second year university, ten pages a day like an exercise program (ergo 63 days). I think that absolves me from reading any other literary tome-stone. Oh, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow too. I think I can skip past David Foster Wallace and proceed into heaven now, thanks. If I want to research lost time, I don’t want it to take all the time I have remaining. I still want what T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock had to look forward to,

Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

During which I will taste the mad leanings of words, sometimes maudlin and sometimes middling and sometimes my delight. So. What is a madeleine?

Well, according to my copy (in English translation) of Larousse Gastronomique (inscribed “To James, on your 14th birthday – with love and great expectations! Mom + Dad”), “The recipe for madeleines remained a secret for a very long time. It is said that it was sold for a very large sum [two verys – wow, such important] to the pastry-makers of Commercy, who made of this great delicacy one of the finest gastronomic specialties of their town.” It then proceeds to the recipe, which is 625 g of fine sugar, 625 g or sieved flour, 12 eggs, 1½ teaspoons bicarbonate of soda, the grated rind of a lemon, a pinch of salt; work together in a bowl until smooth, then add 300 g melted butter, mix well, put in buttered madeleine molds and bake in “a very slow oven.” Seems straightforward enough, but I guess it was one of those “pedo mellon a minno” things, gastronomic version? Or maybe it was improved in the telling. Or maybe the Larousse recipe isn’t quite right. After all, The Oxford Companion to Food says they are “made from egg yolks creamed with sugar and lemon zest, with flour, noisette butter, and stiffly beaten egg whites folded in before baking in little shell-shaped moulds.” Oh, separate the eggs and handle the whole thing like a soufflé? Now, why wouldn’t Larousse say so? Preserving the secret? Who paid them off?

Why are they called madeleines? After some woman named Madeleine, to be sure, but which one? Some say a pastry maker called Avice who worked for Talleyrand invented them. Others say they were brought into fashion by Stanslas Lezinski, father-in-law of Louis XV. In either case, they may have been named for Madeleine Paulmier, who was a pastry cook for one or the other of those aforementioned dudes.

But where does the name Madeleine come from? Not from my friend Madeline Koch, I’m pretty sure, because she’s younger than all that, though she’s so lively you never know, and after all Koch does mean ‘cook’. No, no, it comes from Magdalena as in Maria Magdalena, which is Mary Magdalene, which is Mary of Magdala. She’s the character whose song gets everybody teary-eyed from Jesus Christ Superstar, “I don’t know how to love him,” although I’ve always sort of liked “Pilate’s Dream,” but then I would, it’s a baritone number and I used to do it at auditions. So yeah, she is, according to tradition, the prostitute saved from stoning by Jesus, but actually the Bible doesn’t say that, just that Jesus cast out seven demons from her and she was one of the first to see Jesus after he was resurrected. More recent books have said she was married to Jesus and they had kids, but really that idea came out ages ago in Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which is a towering example of hyperventilative speculative results-oriented “research.”

Towering. Magdala actually comes from Hebrew migdal מגדל meaning ‘tower’. She was from a place with a tower, and researchers think probably it was Magdala Nunayya, ‘fish tower’, near Tiberias, which is now Teverya; I stopped through Teverya when I was in Israel and it was hot and I walked a bit to a box beach and dipped a page of my journal into the Sea of Galilee just so I could say I did and some machine I tried to buy a soft drink from ate my shekels (that’s not slangy, shekels are the unit of currency in Israel). So I got on another bus and went to Nazareth. Which is where Jesus is said to have been from. But let me tell you, you want improved in the telling, try religious sites in the Holy Land. All you see is structures from a few hundred years ago, some of them really gaudy and overdone, built on top of spots that supposedly are where some event in the life of Christ happened two thousand years ago. Somehow the crucifixion and the burial happened upstairs-downstairs from each other in a smoke-smeared church in Jerusalem, and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth is pretty darn new, you sure wouldn’t see anything like what was there for the angel to tell Mary she was going to have Jesus, but of course it’s nice and all for a church (I prefer gardens, but hey). When I was there the church was suddenly filled with the sound of the call to prayer from a nearby mosque on their loudspeakers. Now that’s layered history for you.

So anyway, the Mary the mother of Jesus is a different Mary from Mary of the fish tower and the tasty little dry biscuits. But they both had the same name, which wasn’t Mary, that’s a New Testament version (and an Anglophone one at that) of a name that’s rendered differently when you see it in the Old Testament. Just as James is really the same name as Jacob (now there’s a story, but later) and Jesus is really the same name as Joshua, Mary is really the same name as Miriam, which is to say Maryam. There are different ideas as to what that name means but never mind, nobody really knows, what it means to people is what it makes them think of. Which is all the people they know named Mary, including of course Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Tyler Moore, and Queen Mary, and Mary Mary Quite Contrary, but not my mother because she’s Mary Anna, which is different.

Well, there it is. Things change over time. Memories get improved in the telling through a hundred visions and revisions. From a few stones we build a tower. Time toasts it, and you drink toasts to it, and then you’re toast. Memory may be provoked involuntarily, cued by a myriad of things, more likely by a jolt to the amygdala than by a bite of mini-Magdala, but what you get when it pours forth is not the small beer of daily life but the small-batch whiskey that it has been distilled to, soaking in the toasted wood of say, why is my glass empty?

Life is full of madeleines, every moment or word another dip in the cup and nibble and recall, but pretty much none of them are actually madeleines. Even the memory cues are improved in the telling. Proust’s prolix peregrinating prose perambulation is thought to have been at base autobiographical, but in an early draft of the book, it was not a madeleine that he took with tea. It was a bit of toast.