Weekend Cooking: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

It’s been a while since I’ve read a food book.

Or at least it feels like a while.

On a WhatsApp chat with my friends in Singapore – we’ve known each other for 20+ years since we were in teenagers in secondary school – one of my friends mentioned Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

And that was the kick I needed to finally read this book.

(That got me thinking, what is it that kicks a book up my TBR list, where it has been sitting for years and years? A friend’s recommendation, that’s what. If not a real-life friend then an online friend, a fellow reader whose recs I am familiar with and trust).

Anyway, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake has a different take on things, in terms of food books.

Rose Edelstein, on her ninth birthday, suddenly discovers she has an unusual gift – she can taste emotions through the food people make. This she learns as she bites into the chocolate lemon birthday cake her mother has made.

“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 even taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary, a white dotted line of them in a row on the nightstand like an ellipsis to her comment: I’m just going to lie down….”

She can taste the drug and alcohol issues in the maple syrup, and the angst and depression in a classmate’s sandwich. And the secrets, oh, all the secrets in her mother’s cooking.

So it’s no wonder she prefers and worships factory made food. Doritos. Frozen waffles. Potato chips. Faceless, emotionless food.

You kinda know where the story is going, at least in terms of her family life. But Bender does take the reader on an extremely sharp curve when she leads us along with Rose’s brother’s story. I mean, I thought Rose was strange enough, but Joseph? Woah. That was truly bizarre.

(And yet, some part of it, totally understandable. If you’ve read the book, you may know what I mean, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t. But it’s been something that I cannot forget, weird, since this is more of Rose’s story than Joseph’s.)

I admired how Bender brought the LA neighborhood to life, where screenwriters lived in big apartment complexes and “stood out on balconies as I walked home from school, smoking afternoon cigarettes, and I knew someone had gotten work when the moving vans showed up. That, or they’d worn through their savings.
I adored the quirkiness, the surrealness, and just that little sprinkling of magic, of pixie dust, that Bender adds to the book. So that it is weird but not completely totally bamboozled out of your mind weird. That it still feels real, even with Joseph and what happens to him, that feeling of it being all too much, his way of coping with it.

This book, I didn’t really know what to expect with this book. And I think it’s a book that some people might not know what to do with, because it’s not completely out there enough for some, and maybe too quirky for others. Or not ‘foodie’ enough. But for me, this is a story about a young girl growing up, learning about herself, learning about her family and all its troubles. And it was a great read, with some stunning writing. For me it was such a refreshing treat, like lemon cake.



Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, beer, wine, photographs