What Proust’s Nose Knew

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in: Cooking

“Johnny, honey,” my mother would say to me at the dinner table, prefacing an admonition echoed endlessly by TV mothers on all the shows I watched as a kid in the 1950s, such as “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “Don’t talk with your mouth full!” Was this just mid-century modern manners or, in fact, intuitively legit? After all, one can argue that a good meal is even better with good conversation. But from a physiological standpoint, and without knowing it, my mother was right on the gastronomic money.

Recent research into smell, nicely summarized in Piet Vroon’s book, “Smell, the Secret Seducer,” tells us that when one talks with food in the mouth, at least some of the odor molecules that would normally be carried by the oral cavity’s “inner air” upward through the throat (nasopharynx) to join with the more voluminous and smell-rich outside or “nasal air” (translated now into smell signals headed for the brain’s olfactory organ) would be lost in all that outgoing table talk. And with the incremental loss of smell, the taste of the food, so dependent on smell, would be diminished along with its seemingly magical evocation of memory and emotion.

French novelist Marcel Proust knew all about the powerful effects of taste and smell on memory and emotion. His multi-volume “In Search of Lost Time,” written in the early 1900s, is based in part on childhood memories triggered by the taste and smell of a French cookie-sized cake, a petite madeleine, dipped in his cup of tea. Proust, like my mother, may not have understood the physiology, but his encounter with the little cake, depicted in the first volume of his novel, “Swann’s Way,” awakened in him a “vast structure of recollection” stimulated by organs in the brain associated with memory and emotion — among them, the olfactory bulb and the hippocampus. According to sources at the Institute for Right Brain Gastronomy (IRBG), a newly formed association of culinary activists in Berkeley, Calif., these organs of the old mammalian brain (the limbic system) are most directly wired to functions originating on the right side of the “new brain.”

foodoodle on right-brain and left-brain eating

So what’s cooking on the left side of the brain?

If the pleasure of a meal is to a large extent based on smell and taste linked to memory and emotion on the right side of the brain, as the above illustration makes clear, what’s cooking on the left side? In a word, words. We talk, think and write about food using the linguistic and analytic functions of the left neocortex. This split-brain view of gastronomy is summarized in the following chart published by the IRBG that assigns a wide range of culinary phenomena to left or right brain modes.

Institute for Right Brain Gastronomy chart

The right brain takes the cake

Admittedly, the chart, inspired by one for visual artists in Betty Edwards’ best-selling book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain,” understates the mutual dependency of both hemispheres of the brain, what scientists call its interconnectivity. But while it’s indeed true that artists, whether cooks, painters, writers or composers, bring both halves of their brain to work every day, the activation of the right brain’s unique aptitudes, often requiring painful sacrifices from the artist, appears to be the key factor in the creative process, as Proust and his nose knew so well.

Proust’s achievement, perhaps the highest in 20th century literature, required a rigorous discipline made possible by breaking off from the very life he remembers and portrays so gloriously in his books. Increasingly invalided by a congenital illness, Proust wrote much of “In Search of Lost Time” in virtual isolation (in bed, curtains drawn), retreating into the realm of right-brain musings, daydreams and, as the more radical surrealist writers of the 1920s and ’30s celebrated, the unconscious (“automatic writing”).

It should be noted that Proust had been a prolific bon vivant and discerning gourmand in his salad days, and, obviously, a gifted macrosmate (a good smeller), if not an hyperosmiac (over-sensitive to smell). But his artistic genius lay in his ability to orchestrate right-brain phenomena through brilliant, if challenging for his readers, left-brain linguistic expression. And though Proust’s work is full of wonderfully depicted meals and even specific dishes remembered from his youth (See “Dining With Proust” co-authored by Anne Borrel), one would never label Proust a food writer or even a culinary memoirist. For Proust, food was not an end in itself (left-brain) but the means (right-brain) to an end (art).

Is it ironic, and perhaps absurd, to measure myself and others, in fact the entire contemporary food profession, by the standard of a literary work that few dare or care to read and supported by left/right brain theory viewed as pop science by many? Yes, but then I have a taste for both irony and the absurd, which are, of course, very right-brain. And for me that takes the proverbial cake.

Illustrations, from top:

Foodoodles by John Harris

Chart by the Institute for Right Brain Gastronomy

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