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Surreal Meals: An Interview with Aimee Bender

In her strangely sweet coming-of-age novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Doubleday, 2010), Aimee Bender brings her unique brand of magic into the kitchen. On the cusp of her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers something extraordinary: she can taste her mother’s hidden emotions in the cake. This book excerpt so captivated me—indeed, our entire editorial staff—we had to find out more about the book’s origins. Generous with her time and personal experiences, Aimee agreed to chat about lemon cakes, surreal meals, anonymity, and the ability of food to repair our losses.

Allison Parker: In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Rose’s affliction—her ability to taste the emotions of the people who prepare the food she eats—is both an extraordinary talent and a curse. How did you come up with the premise of the book?

Aimee Bender: I’m not completely sure how to track it, but I do have a close friend who often has talked about feelings—her own and those of other people—as something to digest. Or metabolize. Or process. All words that can apply to food as well. I think that sunk in pretty deeply and made sense to me.

ACP: The first time Rose discovers this ability, she’s eating a cake her mother has made for her birthday. Do you bake?

Aimee Bender: I like to cook, but I’m not very good at baking.

ACP: So, how many cakes did you eat in the name of research while writing this book?

Aimee Bender: Many! I also have enjoyed many cakes at readings lately, which has been a treat. Though I’ve heard how lemon and chocolate is not a common combo—something I didn’t know.

ACP: What made you decide on a lemon-chocolate cake for Rose?

Aimee Bender: It wasn’t a calculated choice, but I think I did like the way that lemon is both sour and sweet, and maybe even indicated a shift in her palate, since she wanted something with a more complicated flavor.

ACP: What about your own traditional childhood birthday cake?

Aimee Bender: [It was] from the bakery at our local grocery store: fudge icing, white cake, fudge inside. Very good. I also loved angel’s food cake but didn’t have that as much. So spongy! My best friend at the time had a mother who made amazing cakes, and she made one once for my birthday that still probably reigns in my head as the best cake I have ever had. A kind of light milk chocolatey cake—how did she make the cake part so light and also chocolatey?—with a subtle frosting. She made a big one, so we had leftovers in the freezer for a while, which was heavenly.

ACP: For readers unfamiliar with your writing style, it’s fair to warn them that the book takes some very surreal turns. What’s the most surreal food experience you’ve had?

Aimee Bender: Once, in France, I was eating a very wonderful meal and came upon a kind of savory souffle that tasted so familiar, but its shape was new—fluffy! beige!—so I couldn’t place it. I spent half the meal tasting it without access to the word that would name it. I wish I could’ve savored that experience more, how I could taste the food pre-language. Almost at dessert it popped into my head: artichoke.

Also, once in Japan, I was served a meal in what seemed like a tiny cabinet of drawers. My job was to open each drawer and find a little item inside—a piece of fish on a shiso leaf, a little vegetable sculpture. So fun.

ACP: Toward the end of the book, Rose systematically cooks and bakes her way through Joy of Cooking. Do you use that book?

Aimee Bender: Yes, I do use it, and I like it a lot. I recently made Chicken Chile Verde, which came out well. And tomato sauce. I rely on it repeatedly for a little bit of everything. It’s probably the cookbook I turn to most often.

ACP: “Conscious cuisine” is now more fashionable than ever. Rose is, of course, hyper-conscious of the origins of her food. How important is it to you to acknowledge where your food comes from? Are you one of those activist foodies?

Aimee Bender: I love farmer’s markets, and I love the idea that I can see and meet a person who has had some interaction with the food I’m eating. I’m not an activist so much, because I also do still see the pull of the bad-for-me junky stuff—the safety and familiarity of that, even though it’s pretty awful. That’s part of the book, too. I wanted [Rose] to also hide inside that food a bit. But it is such a primal pleasure to plant a little basil and go outside and pluck it and use it with tomatoes and garlic from the farmer’s market.

ACP: What’s always in your fridge?

Aimee Bender: Yogurt. Parmesan cheese. Eggs. Bread. Italian parsley. Peanut butter.

ACP: This is not the first time that food—or the tartness of lemon—has figured significantly in your fiction. I’m thinking about stories from your collection, Willful Creatures. In one of those stories, a character says, “If lemonade is too sweet, then we are somehow lost to the crush of anonymity.”

Aimee Bender: Yes—nice connection to that story in the other book. I guess I do think of food as a way that we care for each other, and I know for myself sometimes when I make a nice meal, it’s clearly a way of communicating, of giving, of wanting to reach out, to please and delight the other person. And when rushed and distracted, I will burn myself, or I’ll get impatient, and it has a very different feel. With the lemonade, I think I was imagining a lemonade-maker just dumping sugar in without thinking, and that mindlessness being a way that we forget that it’s for a person, that it’s for ourselves, that it’s supposed to be drinkable, a gift.

ACP: The epigraph to The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake suggests that food can “repair our losses.” Without giving anything away, that seems to hold true for Rose and her mother. Do you believe this is true for everyone?

Aimee Bender: Yes and no. Food can’t really repair loss, but at the same time, we eat after funerals, as a way to renew our living selves. The animated film “Spirited Away” has a moment I really love. The main character, a young girl, has just lost her parents—if I remember correctly, they have turned into pigs! She is alone, and weeping. She is devastated. She weeps and weeps. At a certain moment, her weeping abates a bit, just a little, and she takes out her lunch and begins to eat it, as she continues to weep. It’s a very quiet moment, but it feels so life affirming to me—that even while she is grieving, she gets a little hungry. So in that way, yes, food is one of the ways we can begin to repair our losses.

ACP: The symbolism of food during a time of mourning seems so universal. Food really tethers us to this world, doesn’t it?

Aimee Bender: It sure does.

ACP: Aimee, thank you so much for your time—and for the particular beauty of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

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