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

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin

homecooking   Food writer and critic Ruth Reichl calls her “the anti-Martha Stewart”.

And perhaps it is because of that that Colwin’s Home Cooking is such an enjoyable read.

In the introduction, Colwin tells the reader that she is a homebody. She loves to stay at home, loves to eat in, and enjoys cooking, but adds that “while I like a nice meal, I do not want to be made a nervous wreck in the process of producing one. I like dishes that are easy, savory, and frequently cook themselves (or cook quickly)”.

“I am probably not much fun as a traveler, either. My idea of a good time abroad is to visit someone’s house and hang out, poking into their cupboards if they will let me. One summer I spent some time in a farmhouse on the island of Minorca. This was my idea of bliss: a vacation at home (even if it wasn’t my home). I could wake up in the morning, make the coffee and wander outside to pick apricots for break- fast. I could wander around the markets figuring out that night’s dinner. In foreign countries I am drawn into grocery shops, supermarkets and kitchen supply houses.”

She’s my kind of cook!

I adore reading food book, and I’ve read more than a few by chefs, restaurant critics and other foodie celebs, but Laurie Colwin’s writing is refreshing in its candour and her ability to connect with the reader, whose domain is more likely to be a home kitchen than a professional one.

Ruth Reichl, the writer, editor and former New York Times restaurant critic, told the New York Times: “You want to be in the kitchen with her — that is her secret. She is the best friend we all want. She never talks down to you.” Colwin is always encouraging:

“Of course there is a motto here: always try everything even if it turns out to be a dud. We learn by doing. If you never stuff a chicken with pâté, you will never know that it is an unwise thing to do, and if you never buy zucchini flowers you will never know that you are missing one of the glories of life.”

She willingly shares her kitchen mistakes:

“This was in my younger days when that sort of thing seemed like a good idea. Triple bypass surgery on the vice-presidents of a medium-sized corporation could have been performed in the time it took me to bone this chicken because the trick was to bone it without cutting into it. You sort of wiggled the knife inside the cavity and got the bones from underneath. When I had finished, I was exhausted and the poor little chicken looked like a dead basketball. But nevertheless, I was determined to stuff that creature with a fancy mixture of ham, chicken, pistachio nuts, cream, cognac and so forth. It makes me shudder to think of it.”

And muses on parties and other people’s cooking:

A party by its nature is free-floating. People are free to float about your rooms grinding cake crumbs into your rugs, scattering cigarette ash on your wood floors, scaring your cat and leaving their glasses to make rings on your furni- ture. This sort of thing is enthralling to some potential hosts and hostesses, horrific to others. Most people feel a combination of these things: the idea of a party fills them half with horror, half with excitement.

The old-fashioned fish bake was a terrifying production. Someone in the family had gone fishing and had pulled up a number of smallish fish – no one was sure what kind. These were partially cleaned and not thoroughly scaled and then flung into a roasting pan. Perhaps to muffle their last screams, they were smothered in a thick blanket of sour cream and then pelted with raw chopped onion. As the coup de grace, they were stuck in a hot oven for a brief period of time until their few juices ran out and the sour cream had a chance to become grainy. With this we were served boiled frozen peas and a salad with iceberg lettuce.

And writes her recipes without too much of a fuss. Sure it’s nice to have a fancy meal on occasion, but with a busy lifestyle, sometimes you just need an idea for a simple meal, like this one for ‘Last-Minute Soup’ in which you steal your kids’ pasta shapes:

“one cup jellied stock, two asparagus chopped up, some little pasta, one egg, juice of half a lime, and black pepper Let the stock come to a simmer and add the asparagus and pasta: you can steal your child’s pastina, or pasta stars. When the pasta has cooked, stir in a beaten egg and the lime juice. Add fresh black pepper and eat at once.”

Here’s when you should read Laurie Colwin

– when you’ve had your own kitchen disaster

– when you’re planning a dinner party

– when you’ve stuck your head in the fridge wondering what to cook for dinner and your kids are demanding “where’s my dinner??”

– when you’ve had a horrendous meal out and everything else is closed and you’re still starving

– when you’re despairing at the size of your home and kitchen (“I did the dishes in a plastic pan in the bathtub and set the dish drainer over the toilet”, says Colwin)

– when you need to feed the fussy and want to disguise vegetables

Or you could just read Colwin anytime and every time. And then reread.

(I read this on Scribd)\


Laurie Colwin is the author of five novels: Happy All the TimeFamily HappinessGoodbye Without LeavingShine On, Bright and Dangerous Object; and A Big Storm Knocked It Over; three collections of short stories: Passion and AffectAnother Marvelous Thing, and The Lone Pilgrim; and two collections of essays: Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. She died in 1992, aged just 48.

(Maureen Corrigan of NPR recommends starting with Colwin’s 1982 novel Family Happiness, if you haven’t read Colwin’s work before.)

Foodies Read 2015 Button

This is my fourth read for Foodies Read 2015


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