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?
AB: It's like you're with someone and you suddenly feel full of sadness but actually there isn't anything going on that's sad in your life and the idea is that the other person might not be aware of their deep sadness and you are actually holding it for them. I find this kind of amazing… and terrifying.
SI: Many of the most interesting conversations in the book take place around the dinner table. What was the Bender family dinner table like? Did your family eat together? Was it loud? Was it quiet?
AB: There are three [daughters] in the family; I'm the youngest. My mom cooked a lot of seventies dishes in the seventies. Beef Stroganoff. Tuna Casserole. Turkey Tetrazzini. It was generally pretty loud and funny and fun. Being the youngest I was always sort of trying to catch up and I was a little bit in awe of my sisters. Then it got more low-key when they left for college. It was less rowdy, but still talkative.
SI: Do you cook?
AB: I do.
SI: Did you feel that to understand Rose you had to cook ?
AB: I did take some cooking classes at the New School of Cooking in Culver City which was really fun. I was writing the book at that point and I could [incorporate] the tools from my basic knife skills class. But probably the cooking came first. What probably happened was that I was enjoying cooking a lot and it led me to write about food. Cooking is such a good antidote to writing: It's a non-verbal activity, very sensory, not symbolic, and then it's over.
SI: The cooking craze. What say you?
AB: Cooking is in a renaissance right now but twenty to thirty years ago cooking was a symbol of women not being able to get out and work so then it was NOT appealing. It felt like it was all of a piece. I think cooking then was the oppressor. Now I think cooking has become an enjoyable thing again. For women, I think it's a more complicated relationship.
SI: What do you like to cook?
AB: I like easy things. I'm not good with details. I like roasting, braises, pot roast. I make kale chips last night. I think it's a Michael Pollan recipe. You cut the stems out and put a little olive oil and salt on them and roast them at 425 degrees for 10 minutes and they became like a potato chip. I honestly felt like something was wrong. It felt too easy to eat and yummy for it to be any good for me.
SI: What junior high school and high school did you attend?
AB: I went to Paul Revere [Middle School] and Pali High.
SI: Do you have specific memories of LAUSD food, the kind Jamie Oliver wants banished from the land?
AB: Giant, flat hub-cap sized cookies that were chewy on the inside. They were amazing, heavenly. I also liked the weird, doughy pizza with the hardened cheese on top.
SI: I read in an interview that you spend two hours a day forcing yourself to be bored. Does this mean you just sit on the couch and stare into space? Explain please.
AB: It's basically part of my writing routine. I have a schedule and during those two hours I don't HAVE to do any writing. I just have to sit there. It means that sometimes I get really bored, but I'm not allowed to get up and I can't sit on the couch because there are always things to do on the couch. So I'm always at the computer. There's something about sitting through boredom. On the other side of boredom there seems to be work.
SI: This is where the idea of Rose and her… her… relationship to food came to you?
SI: For some reason, it feels weird to call what Rose has an “affliction.” It's more like a super power.
AB: It's actually right in between: It's sort of a super power that she is afflicted by.
SI: In a real world way, there's a line that can be drawn between Rose and that famous moment on Julia Child's Lessons With Master Chefs where she bursts into tears after biting into a crème fraiche custard brioche made by Nancy Silverton. As tears stream down Julia's face, you can't help but wonder, “Julia? What are you thinking about? What triggered the emotion?”…
AB: ….Was it the memory of the food? Was it being served by someone who was a disciple of hers? You know, I was deep into the book when I went and saw Ratatouille with that amazing scene where the critic tastes the food. That moment was so moving to me. Ultimately, I think the movie ends up being all about that. The rat is important but it all falls on the food critic at the end.