Q&A: Aimee Bender on Fried Veal, French Picnics, and Cheeto Cravings

Aimee Bender is known for creating wonder from the everyday, and her new novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is no exception. In her previous work, Bender’s eye for magical realism has turned potato children and fathers with heads made of clothing irons into living, breathing things. Her latest novel focuses on young Rose Edelstein, who begins to taste the emotions of her family — and everyone else — in the food they prepare. Naturally when we caught up with Bender over email, the conversation immediately turned to food.

Flavorpill: What memories do you have of mealtime from your childhood?

Aimee Bender: Well — for one, it was very seventies. Lots of meat. We’d have veal on special occasions. Veal! That seems shocking now. Fried veal. Beef Stroganoff. Pot roast also on occasion. Tuna casserole. There was only one Chinese food place at all nearby with takeout, and we’d get food from there every now and then and it was a big deal and thrilling.

FP: What are a few of your all-time favorite foods?

AB: I used to get a hamburger at the Brentwood Mart, 26th and San Vicente, by a man with a thick Eastern European accent who asked if I wanted seasoning salt on the fries, and it was just wonderful. I’d walk there with my sisters, and it was a little hint of summer. I have a great memory of sitting on a stoop in fall in NYC eating a slice of just hot pizza and watching people walk around in their day and feeling so utterly connected to the city, in a way that made me massively appreciate New York. My grandmother would make amazing matzo ball soup which my parents dubbed “liquid gold”; she’d make a ton of it for a holiday and it always tasted like pure health.

FP: Are there specific meals that you’ve had that stick out in your memory?

AB: I was in Japan a few years ago, in an inn, where a family did a ten small course meal including things like pumpkin soup in a small wine glass, or one tiny piece of fish on a leaf. It was so delicate and carefully and lovingly created. I also lived a year abroad in France, and remember eating with friends by the Seine with a picnic of a baguette, some cheese, great tomatoes, wine, sun setting late in the day, beautiful.

FP: It’s said that, regarding food cravings, men tend to crave bitter and savory, and women crave sugar and sweet.

AB: I actually far prefer savory. The man in me. I crave salt: olives, cheese, hot dogs, tomato sauce.

FP: Given the love and appreciation of food and the experience of it in the book, how do you feel about the current climate, particularly in America, in which society seems to war constantly with food, nutrition and body?

AB: I think it’s complicated. People are treating food differently, which is good. Awareness is on a huge learning curve. But I guess there is a strong pull to that processed stuff and I do get curious about why. I can understand it; I still really like a lot of it. Sometimes all I want are Cheetos. There’s something magnetically compelling about food that tastes exactly the same, even as it is awful for you, and maybe in part because of that.