At one point as I was reading Aimee Bender’s remarkable new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I was eating the food that is, to me, more delicious and comforting than almost anything else in the world: shredded cheddar-jack cheese melted on Tostitos tortilla chips. I stick a pan of them under the broiler and let the cheese bubble and harden a bit; the chips get just a little burnt so the whole thing is a crunchy, salty miracle. That same week, I devoured the very first lobster roll I’ve ever had, crisp buttery bread butting up against the cool, liberally spiced meat. Later, there was a batch of sangria made to salvage an overly sweet bottle of red wine, saved by some fresh lemon juice, tart nectarines and the strawberries that have just come into season. There were frozen pierogies. There were overcooked eggs cloaked with Kraft singles.
What I ate while absorbed in the pages of this book seemed to matter more than with most others, because Bender’s latest is really about the intimate experience of food. Her protagonist, Rose Edelstein, has an excruciatingly sensitive palate. When her mother bakes her the titular lemon cake (with chocolate frosting) for her ninth birthday, Rose realizes she has the burdensome ability to taste people’s feelings in the food they cook. Behind her mother’s whirling energy and loving gestures, Rose tastes her emptiness, so bitter she can barely choke it down:
[T]he goodness of the ingredients—the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons—seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary…
On the surface, it’s a natural premise for an author whose odd, twisty stories have featured a man with a giant hole in his stomach, people who have pumpkins for heads, and a husband who returns home from war without his lips. But it seemed to me at first more like the seed of one of those fantastical tales than a premise that could sustain a longer narrative. But actually, it does even more than that: Attached to a gorgeous, devastating coming-of-age story, Bender’s descriptions of how feelings and flavors mingle manages to be some of the most sumptuous, original—and really, personal—food writing I’ve ever read.
Ultimately, it was food writing—mouth-watering restaurant reviews, travelogues, narrative recipes, profiles of dishes and the chefs responsible for them—along with (somewhat embarrassingly) the televised insistence of Anthony Bourdain, that made me reverse thirteen years of vegetarianism last summer. I’m still not used to looking over a menu and understanding that the whole thing is open to me. I didn’t change my diet as part of any kind of manifesto or major ethical shift; I did it because I got addicted to reading and learning about food, and I wanted to know what it was like to eat an oyster. I wanted to taste the foods whose aromas that taunted me. Having grown up in a kosher home before I cut out meat entirely, there was a long list of things I’d never even tried. Changing my rules changed my sense of the world, and of my place in it.
So maybe I was particularly good audience for a story so invested in the secret life of food. But as so many of us become obsessed with the story and singularity of what’s on our plates, the literalness of Rose’s tastes really speaks to the complicated life of a human appetite. Read with a certain mindset, the book can seem to portray a sort of locavore dystopia, subtly pointing out that we might not really want to know everything about everything we put in our mouths. Thankfully, Bender only hints at this ethical dimension of Rose’s abilities. She’s also not really interested in the rather fascinating implications of what could be understood as an eating disorder, barely describing the state of Rose’s body, or the character’s own sense of it. Instead, Bender cares about how we live with food, and through it: the subtle dramas behind a toasted bagel overwhelmed by cream cheese, the mind-bending Neapolitan pizza from the swanky new restaurant, a stale bag of chips, a berry crisp warm from the oven.
I couldn’t help thinking: If I was like Rose, the juicy earthiness of the organic heirloom tomatoes I excitedly bought at the farmer’s market would matter less than the fact that they ended up tossed in some pasta thrown together by a frazzled, underemployed writer. I’m happy not to know the precise taste of disillusionment, but weeks after reading this novel, I’m finding Bender’s rendering of the possibility hard to shake.
While I’m obsessed with food, I don’t really cook. For years, I didn’t even have a working oven. I love the idea of cooking: I bookmark recipes regularly and with optimism, and whenever I get it together to actually make something—peanut butter brownies for my boyfriend’s birthday, gnocchi with summer vegetables, a simple sauce made from cream, vegetable stock, lemon zest and capers—I’m overly impressed with myself. Mostly I eat overpriced takeout, and otherwise rely on jarred sauce, frozen burritos from Trader Joe’s, Indian food that comes in a little silver pouch and like magic, needs only two minutes in the microwave. While I eat, I watch the Food Network. I read the articles and passionate blogs about how cooking is so easy—and so worth the pay-off!—and I nod my head in agreement. I mean to do it. I aspire to do it. And then I order Thai.
To avoid ingesting insights along with her meals, Rose learns to get by mostly on vending machine food, snacks produced on mechanized assembly lines and “made by no one.” But her powerful taste buds can still suss out the distinct essences imbued by different factories. As for produce, “[B]y the time I was twelve, I could distinguish an orange slice from California from an orange slice from Florida in under five seconds because California’s was rounder-tasting.” A few minor characters in the novel recognize Rose’s usefulness: a conniving high school pal has her over to taste things she cooks, in the hopes that Rose can decode feelings she can’t identify for herself (mostly, she wants to know if her affection for a particular boy is the real thing). Later, a woman offers to hire her to decipher the emotions of troubled children. But Rose isn’t interested in parlaying her skill into a career as some kind of food psychic, handy as that might be. She doesn’t feel superior or special; mostly, she’s just jealous of other people’s obliviousness.
The food that tastes good to Rose has less to do with perfection than honesty. One cafeteria worker at her school makes pizza she can tolerate: “She was sad, true, but the sadness was so real and so known in it that I found the tomato sauce and the melted cheese highly edible, even good.” After she graduates high school, Rose starts eating with more focus, searching beyond quality for what can only be called authenticity. At an Iranian restaurant, she finds “such a rich grief in the lamb shank” that it “was like having a good cry, the clearing of the air after weight has been held.” A dim-sum place “knew its rage in a real way, and I ate bao after bao and left that one tanked up and energized.” And terrifically, “An Ethiopian place on Fairfax near Olympic made me laugh, like the chef had a private joke with the food, one that had something to do with trains, and baldness. I didn’t even get the joke, but the waitress kept refilling my water and asking if I was okay.” It’s not until late in the book that she confronts her fear of eating food she’s made herself—and when she does, her life begins to change.
Certainly, despite her expertise in these pages, Bender doesn’t have the final word on which emotions translate to food and why. You can argue with the range of Rose’s perceptions: Why, for instance, does she taste people’s feelings, but not those of the animals she eats? When it comes to flavor, why is there such a difference between authentic sadness and superficial misery? But perhaps the most striking thing about Rose’s relationship to food is that it is intensely, almost unbearably, current. She tastes the way people are feeling in the moment, the sentiments absorbed by what their hands touch. Meanwhile, in the world outside the book, the emotion of food is mostly related to memories, and to the past: moments and people and whole seasons can be conjured by the taste of pancakes, chicken soup, or even just a thin film of blueberry jam on toast.
Soon after I finished the book, I went to Toronto for my grandmother’s unveiling. At my aunt’s house after we returned from the cemetery, people milled around a table covered with platters of cookies and cakes and fruit, and drank icy pink lemonade of an unnervingly electric shade. As I stood next to my mother and talked to family and friends who were still in shock from my grandmother’s sudden death last summer, I picked at a slice of moist blueberry coffee cake my mother had made in a spate of focused, likely fraught baking for this gathering. In at least that case, I didn’t need to taste what went into the cake to know what did.