In Bender's novel, nine-year-old Rose Edelstein comes home from school one day to find her mother baking a lemon chocolate cake. Rose feels welcomed by the smells of butter and sugar and lemon and eggs mingling together in the oven, but when she bites into this cake something is different. She can taste her mother's emotions.
Rose's unique sense of taste goes on to reveal things about the emotional lives of her father and brother, too; and the complexity of emotions shared by members of the same family. But, as Rose grows up, the book becomes about more than just food - delving into secrets, longing, and memory.
Along with offering a fresh, imaginative, way to look at food writing, Bender's novel has elements of the magical in it. We still can't look at our food the same way.
Aimee Bender will be in town as part of ASU's, Distinguished Visiting Writers Series
, hosted by the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. Bender has an air of openness about her, and an obvious pleasure in talking about writing. We reached her by phone just before Thanksgiving to talk about food, family, and writing.
Food is so central to this story. Are there any particular foods you enjoy eating or drinking while you are writing?
Get the answer after the jump.
I write in the morning so it is typically breakfast food, which is usually -- yogurt with stuff in it. I like hot breakfast, but I am usually not taking the time to prepare it -- so something bare bones, or the least time to consume. For me, as soon as there's contact with language or another person, something dissipates [from my writing practice] so it's usually something easily consumed.
In the book, the character of Rose's mother is described as a person who is "always looking for unexpected guidance." I was curious, what is guiding you -- creatively speaking?
I do have multiple guiding forces. They are sometimes hard to tease out. It takes multiple pushes to sit down and write something. There is the emotional drive or urge, but there is also a person's draw towards working in a certain medium. My mother is a choreographer and she was a great permission-giver, and she taught me a value system. Her medium was dance. It took me awhile to see how different that is from writing.
What is the first meal you can remember cooking?
My first meals were so bad. My depressing memory from college is making pasta. I would boil the noodles and drain them and then just mix - in the same pot - the jar sauce un-warmed because I didn't want to get another pot dirty. I thought of it then as being efficient but then at one point I also recognized it is also depressing. It's an issue of convenience over care. Taking the time to warm the sauce up. There's a bit of that in the book.
Rose has this special gift in the book through her sense of taste. Was it hard to decide how to dole out the rules of that world? How Rose's taste ability worked?
When there is a magical shift in the story, part of the pleasure is figuring out the parameters and rules. If the magical turn has emotional depth to it -- that leads to figuring things out about the character, and the plot, and so on. Some choices didn't make sense. Some people have said, "How come she can't tell the mood of the animals she is eating?" but that didn't seem like as much a part of the story to me as how she was relating to people.
Holidays are so much about family and food. Your book has given such a new perspective on these topics, but I was curious if there are any dishes you always eat with family, or rituals that take place around food with the holidays?
You know my family does the standard greatest hits of the year. My parents will host Thanksgiving this year. Food wise, it is pretty standard. I guess my favorite Thanksgiving ritual is that my mom indulges me and lets me eat large portions of the turkey skin while it is still in the kitchen. I've never really eaten at a Thanksgiving dinner where the big bird came presented to the table. So eating the skin in the kitchen, that's my thing. Now I've got my niece doing it.
Where's your favorite place to read?
I like reading in a good chair, a comfortable café, on the bus. I'm not good at reading in bed anymore. I sometimes like the portability of one book. I went on a trip recently, and I had one book, and that is nice. If I am at home, sometimes there are too many choices.