Thursday, 27 October 2011

Luscious lemon cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.
I started off thinking how lovely this book was and ended up a bit meh. So Spoiler Warning before we start since I have to tell you why.

It is the story of Rose, and her family, and one day she discovers that she can taste what people are feeling in the food they have prepared. So far so good. It is kind of a metaphor for growing up and coming to terms with the difficult things that people experience, except it happens to Rose all at once, which is a bit of a shock. They have this neat self-contained family unit, but a dad who doesn't really know them and a mother who loves them so much she swamps them a little:

"He was cheerful enough when he came home from work but he didn't really know what to do with little kids so he never taught us hoe to ride a bike, or wear a mitt, and our changes in height remained unmarked on the door frames, so we grew tall on our own without proof. He left at the same time each morning and came home at the same time each evening, and my earliest memories of my mother were of her waiting at the door as soon as it was anywhere near time, me on her hip, Joseph at her hand, watching car by car drive by." (p.22)

Since her brother Joseph is as distant (more of this in a minute) as her father she develops a longing for his friend George, who takes her food problem seriously and tries to understand it. I loved this little scene from their trip to the cookie store, all the simplicity and intensity of her feelings (she is obliged by her mother to 'hold hands' whenever she crosses the road):

"...on an impulse, I grabbed George's hand. Right away: fingers holding back. The sun. More clustery vines of bougainvillea draping over windows in bulges of dark pink. His warm palm. An orange tabby lounging on the sidewalk. People in torn black T-shirts sitting and smoking on steps. The city, opening up.
We hit the sidewalk, and dropped hands. How I wished, right then, that the whole world was a street." (p.60)

So Rose learns to adjust her relationship with food, to try not to taste, avoiding eating her mother's meals and surviving on things from packets, that are mostly made by machines. Over time she comes to identify all sorts of subtleties, the ingredients within the food, where it comes from and the feelings of the people who picked it, the disinterest of fast food chefs and the warmth and passion of other cooks. But while still young her feelings are more avoidance and almost blaming the food for it all:

"She set me up with a knife and a cutting board and a pile of green peppers. My mind still clear from the chip bags. I liked this aspect of cooking, being a distant hard-to-identify participant, all so long as I didn't compile or stir anything. Way too scary, to eat a whole meal I'd made myself, but I did enjoy the prep: chopping and dicing, mincing and paring, shredding and slicing, just attacking all these objects that dominated my days even though I knew that nothing would take away the complexity for me, nothing short of not eating them. Still: it gave me such pleasure to grate cheese, like I was killing it." (p.131)

Time passes, their strange grandmother sends them stuff in boxes, the mother starts an affair, the father works and comes home, Joseph withdraws more, Rose makes a friend who just uses her to analyse her feelings. There are a couple of peculiar incidents where the brother 'disappears' but I didn't make much of them, he spends a lot of time alone in the dark in his room anyway. George gets into a good college by Joseph doesn't, he is clever but not an all rounder and has no social skills, so he persuades the parents to rent him an apartment and he pretends to go to a local college. When he fails to call the mother sends Rose to investigate. She finds him in the dark, and on closer inspection he appears to be merging into his chair, she leaves to room to get the phone and when she comes back he has vanished. This was where the book fell down completely for me. It was all too over the top. She tries to argue, through Rose's thoughts, that maybe he was experiencing something like Rose, but on a level from which he could not escape. He reappears briefly and Rose has this conversation with him at the hospital in which we are just supposed to accept that he has been turning into furniture. No. It was all wrong and spoiled a wonderful book. Rose was wonderful and the way she learned about her tasting, how she came to deal with it, she was real and warm and engaging, and then the whole thing with the brother was surreal and unnecessary.

The story pulls itself round and Rose finds new ways to deal with her food problem, coming to meet the food rather than avoiding it. It is a long slow process, just like proper growing up and I was left hoping and caring that she would be ok. So I will avoid all the brother stuff and give you a nice quote about soup, in a restaurant with her father and George after she has discovered Joseph's disappearance:

"My soup arrived. Crusted with cheese, golden at the edges. The waiter placed it carefully in front of me, and I broke through the top layer with my spoon and filled it with warm oniony broth, catching bits of soaked bread. The smell took over the table, a warmingness. And because circumstances rarely match, and one afternoon can be a patchwork of both joy and horror, the taste of the soup washed through me. Warm, kind, focused, whole. It was easily, without question, the best soup I had ever had, made by a chef who found true refuge in cooking. I sank into it." (p.209)

We bought more lemons the other day. It's funny how often there will be no fruit in the house except lemons. I am hoping Creature will get round to doing lemon cake. This is from the original Cranks recipe book, the one they have on the website now is nothing like it:

Luscious Lemon Cake

4oz margerine/butter
4oz sugar
Melt together, in a pan if you like but I use the microwave
Cool a bit then whisk in
1 free range egg
grated rind of 1 lemon
4oz SR wholemeal flour (or plain and some baking powder, I use wholemeal as it gives the cake a nice texture)
The mixture will be more runny than most cake mixtures.
Line and grease the base of a tin, 6-8", and bake 180 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden.
While baking put the juice from the lemon in a small pan with 1oz sugar and make a syrup (but don't reduce it too much, it's okay if you have quite a bit of liquid). When the cake is cooked pierce all over with a knife or toothpick or something and dribble the lemon syrup over, it will soak in and make the cake wonderfully moist. Enjoy.

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