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HER WORLD

From Proust's Madeleine to Trader Joe's Cereal: Feeding the Hunger of Memory

June 13, 1999|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

For those of use who love to travel, it is a very sad thing when the trips are over and memories of auto-rickshaw rides in India and sunsets over the Great Pyramids fade. I take plenty of pictures when I'm away, which remind me of where I've been and what I've seen. But they don't always bring back the experience of being in a place, and are a nuisance to keep organized. Then, too, I'm haunted because I've lost so many small, mundane, easy-to-forget things, like brief encounters or the smell of tropical rain.

Happily, many can be reclaimed by doing something every good homemaker--males included--does about once a week: grocery shopping. That's what I was up to one Saturday morning several weeks ago, though never in a million years would I have expected to be transported to an inn outside Oxford, England, in the breakfast food aisle at Trader Joe's. But there on the shelf I found the key to a travel memory in a box of Weetabix, a low-sodium, high-fiber English cereal made (according to a notice on the box) "By Appointment to Her Majesty The Queen." I cared about none of this the first time I saw Weetabix in England, because I was on my honeymoon.

My husband and I had slept in, and I now clearly remember how the mistress of the B&B rapped imperiously on the door to our room--decorated in a ghastly shade of pink, with mawkish fake flowers, ruffles and bows--to tell us that we'd miss the morning meal altogether if we didn't get up. With all the genteel airs of a character in a BBC comedy, she served us Weetabix in fine china bowls as if it were tea at the Savoy. The cereal got soggy as we sat, looking at guidebooks and giggling behind her back.

In itself, the memory means nothing. But I am happy to have it, if for no other reason than that it proves that what is lost can, quite unexpectedly, be found. "The past is hidden somewhere . . . beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object. . . . And it depends on chance whether or not we come upon this object before we ourselves must die"--or so said Marcel Proust in the famous passage from "Swann's Way," when the narrator of the novel remembers something from the distant past by taking a bite of a tea-soaked cake known as a petite madeleine.

More and more, it seems to me that food is the material object that unlocks travel memories best. For instance, I was in heaven when I recently found pastis--the licorice-flavored liqueur I'd made a habit of drinking one summer in southern France--on the menu at a restaurant in the Napa Valley. My mother can't scoop a spoon into a ripe papaya without smelling orchids and remembering her first trip to Hawaii 40 years ago. And at Thanksgiving dinner last fall, my sister, a Japan scholar, commenced the festivities with cocktails and sembei, rice crackers packaged so beautifully that they could be pearls, making all of us remember the summer we'd visited her while she was studying in Tokyo.

For me, this is reason enough to roam the aisles at Trader Joe's (never mind the bargains), where the in-store circular is known as Trader Joe's Fearless Flyer and there are cartons and jars imported from all over the world: McCann's Irish Oatmeal, made at a factory outside Dublin founded more than a century ago; pure maple syrup from French Canada; Zenith brand stuffed fig leaves (with a label in Greek); and an intriguing boxed mix for Dassant's Italian Orange Dessert Cake (add a few ingredients, stir and you're in Palermo or Capri).

Most of the products bear the company's label no matter where they're from, because Trader Joe's often contracts directly with processors to distribute olive oils, frozen fish, nuts and the like. They have 10 buyers, dispatched all over the globe to find affordable foods and beverages. According to Ira Cohen, senior vice president for merchandising, one is in Japan right now looking for snacks. Others have recently been searching for fresh produce in Chile, smelling cheese in Ireland and tasting shrimp in Vietnam, where the seafood export market is just beginning to open up. Cohen, who left for the big biennial Vin Expo held in Bordeaux at the beginning of June, says that friendships develop between buyers and the producers they visit overseas. And Annette Davidson, who keeps the cereals in stock, thinks that part of what keeps people coming back to Trader Joe's is that they find foods there--like Weetabix and McCann's oatmeal--that make them think of places they've visited.

Sometimes, though, it's just too crowded to hunt for memories at Trader Joe's. And maybe, these days, you can get Weetabix at Ralphs or Vons. But supermarkets give me a headache, and only remind me of hospitals. Meanwhile, back at Trader Joe's, I just found a jar of cornichons--which, minced in tuna salad, evoke France--and some morello cherry jam made in Israel.

For me, a little of that on an English muffin is just like a madeleine--taking me back to childhood summers when my family vacationed on the shores of Lake Michigan near Grand Traverse Bay. On the way there, we stopped at orchards and filled the floor of our red Chevy station wagon with cartons of fresh cherries. My mother made cherry pie, and my brother drank cherry juice. One day I almost drowned in a swimming pool, and, on the beach, my father found a whole handful of rare Petoskey rocks. How could I ever have forgotten all that, and why didn't I figure out sooner that I only needed to reach for a jam jar to get it back?

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