"The butter is French … Not pasteurized," says Rose, the main character in Aimee Bender's new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. "The parsley is from San Diego. The parsley farmer is a jerk."
At age 8, Rose discovers that she has the ability to distinguish not just individual ingredients in any food she tastes, but also the emotions of the person who prepared the dish. She tastes the feelings of migrant farm workers, of factory employees, of cookie bakers, of the cows who unwittingly produce cream and of her own mother who — despite a cheerful outward countenance — is desperately unhappy.
This idea of food as insight or magic, food as an indicator of, or harbinger of, some kind of superpower, is not an entirely new idea. Local author Sarah Addison Allen has written about cakes that can call home long-lost loves, Lewis Carroll's Alice found adventure in a tea party, and Willy Wonka's chocolate factory both rewarded and punished. Perhaps closest to Bender's theme is Laura Esquivel's 1989 novel Like Water For Chocolate. In that book, main character Tita expresses herself through her cooking, and all who eat her food are overcome by her sadness or joy
Bender tells Xpress that there was no direct influence from Chocolate: "The key difference is about tasting a feeling that people don't necessarily know they're feeling."
"Good ham, flat mustard from a functional factory," Rose dictates in the book. "Ordinary bread. Tired lettuce-pickers. But in the sandwich as a whole, I tasted a kind of yelling, almost. Like the sandwich itself was yelling at me, yelling 'Love me, love me,' really loud."
No one can really taste emotion, but food — beyond its basic nutritional value — is a source of comfort and reward, as well as shame and remorse. That's why, for Bender (who heads a class in surrealist writing at UCLA), the idea proved fertile. "It takes a while for me to find — and it could be realistic or not realistic — the character or the situation or the word or the setting that is charged," she says. "I got into the idea of the food as a way for [Rose] to read people. It felt really charged. It felt like there was a lot to say about it and that it would lead into other things about the family."
Cake is rooted in reality. Rose's is a nuclear family, living in Los Angeles, cycling through the motions of normal life. It's in the happy-mundane activity of baking a birthday cake — the book's namesake — that Rose's mother launches the 8-year-old girl's first experience of tasting emotion.
From there, the book continues along a trajectory of twisted normalcy. Rose still goes to school, her parents coexist in a mutual chill, her antisocial brother withdraws ever farther into himself. For Rose, her strange power proves more of an adversity than a gift, something to shrink from rather than rise to — a noteworthy juxtaposition against the setting of Los Angeles and all of its promise of larger-than-life-ness.
"I did really want to write about L.A. a little bit," says Bender. "In earlier work I've often placed things in unnamed places, as more of a fairy tale mode. For this one, I wanted to ground it. I hadn't written much about L.A. and I was feeling like using the knowledge that I have about the city."
Bender grew up in L.A., lives there currently and says she has many changing impressions of it. "It's a much more inward city than it appears because of Hollywood and the external focus," she says. "The truth is, you're just in your car, a lot, alone. So there is a lot of insularity, but it's surprising."
That inside-looking-out feel is carried throughout the story. At one point Rose (who narrates from a child's perspective but with the insight, Bender explains, of an adult recalling her youth) describes her parents: "At my door, my father kept his arm tight around her, but he suddenly seemed stuck there, like a person who stumbles in public and apologizes to the air."
But for all the ennui of Cake (no surprise, it's in the very title), Bender managers to wring both lightness and rare beauty from her prose. Rose finds an ally in her brother's genius friend and she eventually learns to value her strange ability: "By the time I was twelve, I could distinguish an orange slice from California from and orange slice from Florida in under five seconds because California's was rounder-tasting due to the desert ground and the clear tangy water of far-flung irrigation."
Bender's approach to writing is not so different from Rose's approach to discerning a particular flavor. "The mysterious part is the good part because it's such a joy to hit upon something that has movement in it," the author explains of her process. Cake is her fifth book and her second full-length novel. "The joy of finding that eclipses all the disappointments. It's a great feeling when something lines up. That's why I'm a big believer in the every day showing up and doing the work because it does eventually happen."
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Aimee Bender
what: Reads from her novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
where: Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe
when: Tuesday, June 22 (7 p.m., free. malaprops.com)