Food to some is a method of sustenance; solely a means to fulfill basic biological ends. How else can one explain such food novelties as spray cheese and bacon flavored soda? I love food. While I wouldn’t call myself a ‘foodie,’ as my tastes are not all that exclusive, I love to cook and putter around in my kitchen. This wasn’t always true. I lived in Center City, Philadelphia for almost six years and hardly ever visited the kitchen, except to make coffee. Once I made the decision to live more remotely, it just wasn’t as easy to pick up a pizza or order Chinese food or Pad Thai or whatever was the special at Monk’s Café. (an awesome place if you ever find yourself in Philly)
I just finished Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake; a surreal tale of nine year old Rose Edlestein’s unique ability to taste her mother’s emotion through food. Rose is horrified to learn of her outwardly cheerful, exuberant mother’s “absence, hunger, spiraling, hollows.”
The Edlestein’s are a dysfunctional lot and Bender captures their idiosyncrasies in relatable ways. Rose’s trapped mother, beleaguered father and science genius brother, Joseph, help give Rose an uncanny ability to sniff out hypocrisy. She eventually reveals her secret to Joseph’s only friend, George. George is the most normal influence in Rose’s life and it is through him that she is able to hone her skill to a surprising conclusion.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake reminded me of another food-related book I’ve read recently: Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery. This book was written and published in France before her sensational hit The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but was issued in the United States in 2009. Gourmet Rhapsody takes place in the same building as The Elegance…, but its story involves Monsieur Arthens, a well-respected food critic on his death bed. While acclaimed by his peers in the food world, M. Arthens family feels differently about this distant husband and altogether absent father.
But, M. Arthens is not concerned about his legacy, professional or personal. M. Arthens is haunted by taste. His dying wish is to recapture a specific flavor from long ago. This quest takes the reader on a quick (156 page) jaunt through the food critic’s life, racing through all sorts of culinary episodes, in hopes of returning with the Flavor par excellence.