Chocolate-covered Proust

A meditation on sweet memory

"Oh, this is much better than thinking about problems," my client says. She holds the chocolate — a caramel truffle — above her head, gliding it back and forth like a kid, bringing it in for a landing. But she stops short and takes just a bite, putting the remainder back in the box.

"Damn," she says, "that's amazing."

I'm playing Marcel Proust, whose taste of a madeleine provoked a wave of memories he could not recall by intellect alone. But instead of the little cake, I'm using chocolate from Maison Robert (3708 N. Peachtree Road, 770-454-6442), which I visited a few days earlier, leaving with more candy than I could eat alone. So I've been approaching strangers and clients with samples. "Taste this," I say. "Tell me what you remember."

All of the senses have the capacity to evoke memory, but taste, especially the taste of sweetness, seems particularly powerful in that respect. Of course, memory is always mixed with fantasy — wishes, fears. Sweetness tends to be hopeful.

"I remember," my client says, closing her eyes. "I remember sitting on a stool in the kitchen. Mom is baking a chocolate cake like she did every Saturday morning for dinner that night at the Baptist church. I am licking the leftover icing from the bowl. She kisses my blond hair." She opens one eye and looks at me expectantly.

"You are Jewish, your mother was an alcoholic who ran away with your father's best friend when you were 8," I remind her.

"Oh yeah," she says.

"A sweet wish," I say.

"Well, the blond hair and the kissing were real," she says. "I just reformatted it a little. I bit into this chocolate and I immediately remembered the most powerful orgasm of my life. I was about 20, visiting my father at his farm. I screwed his big blond Viking farmhand in the barn. Afterward, he gave me a Kraft caramel."

Later, after she left, I lay down on the floor and ate the rest of the truffle. I waited for an orgasm. Nothing.

You would nonetheless have to travel to Europe to find chocolate as orgasmic as Maison Robert's. French-born Robert Reeb and his American wife Patricia have been making and packaging their delectable chocolate in a small house since 1997. For the 17 years prior to that, they operated a pastry and confection shop with a very popular tearoom at Cherokee Plaza, north of Lenox Square. Its closing was a huge loss to the public — I lunched there at least once a week for years — but it saved their mental health. "It was driving us crazy," Patricia told me. "This is much nicer ... much less stress."

Robert Reeb, a third-generation chocolate maker, apprenticed with his father and then trained further in Switzerland. He is, to say the least, laconic about his work after so many years. He points at amazing birdhouses he is making out of chocolate. Later they will be filled with chocolate-truffle eggs for Easter. "They do not taste bad," he says.

At the Ansley Starbucks a few days later, I hand an acquaintance my absolute favorite creation from Maison Robert — a chocolate-dipped almond macaroon. Talk about memories. When I lived in Augusta in my 20s, I used to go to Smoak's Bakery early Saturday morning before they opened and hang out by the back door to buy the macaroons as they came out of the oven. And one of my earliest memories is stopping on my bicycle near our house in Charlotte where the bakery delivery truck was parked. I told the deliveryman I would take my mother's usual box of macaroons to her myself. Instead, I hid in the back yard and ate every one of them. It's a bittersweet memory, like the dark chocolate coating of the nostalgia-laden macaroon I hand to the man.

"Dark chocolate has antioxidant properties," he says. Indeed, Patricia Reeb told me, laughing, that despite the Atkins Diet, people are buying more chocolate than ever — and usually the dark variety, often mentioning how healthful it is.

"Tell me what you remember when you taste it," I say to the man at Starbucks.

He chews and smiles. Then, disconcertingly, he starts to tear-up. "Sad," he says. "It reminds me of marzipan. My grandmother used to make these amazing animals out of marzipan. I kept them with my toy cars. I couldn't bear to eat them, they were so cool. So she started making me two of each — one to eat and one to save."

"Like this?" I ask, pulling from my bag a marzipan alligator made by Robert Reeb.

He laughed and took it from my hand. "Yes, like that ... well, maybe not quite so perfect," he whispered, his face as radiantly sweet as a child's.

Life can be sweet but not everyone is a gourmand. On a weekday night, I go to the newly renovated Krispy Kreme on Ponce de Leon. I buy a dozen glazed, hot off the rack. I can't even bear to try the designer doughnuts in flavors like Key lime pie.

I carry my green and white box to a bar and sit next to two girls furiously copying Bible passages while they eat doughnuts. I quickly make myself sticky devouring the nearly liquid, sugar-glazed pastries.

Then a large, rough-looking woman rolls by in an electric wheelchair. She has coffee and a few doughnuts. She finds a table and begins eating. I walk over. "Excuse me," I say. "I know it's strange to ask, but what do you remember when you eat that doughnut?"

She looks at me like I'm from another planet. She inserts a finger in her mouth to dislodge some of the chewed doughnut.

"I remember," she says, "what it was like to walk, to have a home, a sister, a job."

"Sweet memories?" I ask

"Yeah," she says.

"Do you have hope?" I ask.

"I have Proust," she says, winking.

My shock is obvious. "I am not as sweet as I seem," she says with a laugh.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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