Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: Cake Police, the Perfect Bowl of Soup + Culinary ESP
Award-winning writer, native Angeleno and USC creative writing teacher Aimee Bender's second novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, opens with 9-year-old central protagonist, Rose Edelstein, taking a bite of birthday cake that her mother has made from scratch and tasting... bottomless suburban despair? She's what one of the other characters will eventually describe as a "magic food psychic," a supertaster whose every mouthful and chew divines not just the provenance of ingredients -- i.e. the hectic Ohio factory from which her cafeteria chicken nugget derives -- but also the exact mental state of whoever cooked the food (the worker in charge of nugget-breading being "stoic").
Part haunting, L.A.-based eats-driven coming of age novel, there's also plenty in Lemon Cake for those weary of competitive foodies preoccupied with who has the most refined palate -- because for most of the book, Rose's culinary ESP is a full-course curse.
This week, Lemon Cake comes out in paperback. In our interview, Bender discusses not only her book, but also soup, the unexpectedly controversial pairing of lemon and chocolate and the real star of Pixar's critically-lauded vermin-gourmand flick Ratatouille.
Squid Ink: What inspired you to write about a girl who gets more than she bargained for out of food?
Aimee Bender: My latest answer is that it's a way to try to talk about the dynamics between people without talking about the people directly. The other item probably most present at any social interaction is food. It's kind of almost constantly there -- so I could let the food soak up the dynamics between the people.
SI: How did you come up with the idea?
AB: I had this floating idea about food. I'd been writing about a character who is obsessed with soup. Then I'd let that rest. Then I had an idea about food being more than food, being a deeper nourishment than just something to eat.
SI: Rose was originally obsessed with soup?
AB: Back then she was a he, an older man [character] who was obsessed with the warmth of soup and on the hunt for the perfect bowl of soup.
SI: Soup is tricky like that. The idea of a great bowl of soup is so enticing -- and so hard to find.
AB: True. When soup is good it's SO good.
SI: You mean like the soup at Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger's City Café? The restaurant morphed into Border Grill in 1985 and I still think about their soup. It was so consistently wonderful that it set the bar too high for soup-eating Angelenos. But I digress... Have fans baked you lemon cakes? If so, what were they like?
AB: Sometimes they bring a standard lemon cake with white icing. But generally they mimick the cover, the cake in the first chapter, which is the controversial lemon chocolate cake. I didn't know that cake would be controversial until the book came out.
SI: What makes a lemon chocolate cake provocative?
AB: At my first reading a woman chef came up and said, "Lemon and chocolate don't go together." I said, "Why not?" And she said, "They're very strong flavors and they compete."
SI: Who was she? The cake police? Did she write you a ticket?
AB: Well many people have said to me since then, "It's very unusual. You don't see it often." Then I started to think about it and I couldn't think of many examples. Since then, I've eaten A LOT of lemon chocolate cakes and I think they're good.
SI: You're from Brentwood. What's a key food memory for you?
AB: The Brentwood Country Mart was probably the central place that my sisters and I could walk to. There were French fries there that were amazing and this old Russian man would put seasoning salt on them with this big white shaker. It had salt, paprika and something else in it and the fries were so crispy and so good. Reddi Chick BBQ is the last remnant of the mart that I knew. It's gotten much swankier.
SI: What about an at-home dining memory?
AB: My grandmother was a great cook. She would make a lot of soup: A hot dog and bean soup that was a kid's idea of heaven. Matzo ball soup. She made a really good barley soup. She made different soups several times a week.
SI: Has anyone come forward and insisted to you that they possess Rose's special eating powers?
AB: A couple people have. Or don't seem surprised by such a thing. There's a spectrum: Some people are like, "Of COURSE, there are people who can do this..." and a couple of people have said, "I have something similar with smell..." In the current issue of Sunset Magazine there's [an article about] a resort in Southern Utah and the owner was like, "I don't let people with bad energy cook in my kitchen because you can taste it in the food." It was very interesting. And bizarre. I would much rather eat a genuinely angry cookie than one made by a cheerful person repressing anger. [laughs]
SI: Have therapists tried to diagnose Rose's disorder?
AB: They haven't really. There are a lot of therapists in my family and friend world and there's a condition that is called Projective Identification where you do feel the unconscious feelings of the person. I have a friend who said she thought it was a very clear representation of that experience.
SI: Get out! How does Projective Identification even work?