Food is all those substances which, submitted to the action of the stomach, can be assimilated or changed into life by digestion, and can thus repair the loses which the human body suffers through the act of living. (The Physiology of Taste, Brillat-Savarin)
Aimee Bender‘s last book is a fascinating study of our underlying emotional worlds, often unbeknown to ourselves and the people closest to us, which her female protagonist, Rose Edelstein, can taste in people’s cooking. This premise allows for interesting contemplations on relationships, especially with her mother, who, as in many traditional families, is the primary cook in the family.
As many women caught up in the responsibilities of family lives, Rose’s mother is disconnected from her own emotions, which leaves Rose in a difficult predicament of knowing more about her mother’s emotional turmoil than her mother admits to herself. This diet of emotionally-charged food sends Rose on a journey of tastings and discoveries which are sometimes difficult to digest. While reading, we become witnesses of worlds we sometimes take for granted or simply don’t see.
Aimee Bender, who is a Professor of English Literature at USC University of Southern California, was very kind to take the time to answer my questions.
1. Rose can taste her mother’s dissatisfaction in her marriage and family life, her feeling trapped, but instead of communicating it to her husband and the family, her mother first finds escape in her wood-work, and then in an affair. Do you think there is a way out of this gendered predicament and emotional unfulfilment?
Aimee Bender: Of course – I don’t think Lane takes the only route available. But it’s not a family that discusses things easily, so whatever conflict or fight that would need to get aired doesn’t. I don’t know if the marriage would’ve held up, but it never got officially tested. Some readers thought of it as a more 1950’s marriage, and I can see that, but I also think those kinds of marriages still happen!
2. Underlying a lot of the emotions Rose can taste in different people’s cooking is a longing for love. What does that say about our culture?
AB: I do think people are more isolated – in fact, I think our huge surge of interest in artisanal cooking is also a reaction to the metallic world of computers and gadgets we live with all the time. I definitely feel a craving for the natural world, and eating is a way to participate. It’s easy to get isolated, to get a little lost in computer tasks, to forget to try to reach out to people.
3. Why does Rose taste a factory in her own cooking? She seems to be more connected with her emotions than her mother or anyone else in her family. Is there hope for her in the end?
AB: It’s connected to the book’s end – I feel she has some of what Joseph has in her– a desire to get a break from people, and she does this by eating the factory food. And, at some point, she has retreated from the overwhelm of people enough that there is a hint of factory in her, even though yes, she is way more connected to herself and her emotional life than others. I was also trying to describe how a sensitive person of any kind needs breaks from the world of people or it’s too much. Rose’s breaks (junk food) are less intense than Joseph’s, but they do close her off at times, which is necessary at points but also has a cost. Another way to say it– the factory food saves her, but she has to contend with the way she has distanced herself from others later, when she’s older.
4. Rose can taste the origin and the labour that goes into each item of food. Her gift is similar to the Buddhist concept of mindfulness and oneness with the world around us. Would you agree, and if so, was it a conscious influence?
AB: Good question! You are right. I took a class called MBSR years ago, formed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is a wonderful Buddhist teacher, or a teacher who takes Buddhist ideas and makes them secular and approachable for those who aren’t interested in formal Buddhism. Part of that class is tracking a raisin – first you eat the raisin and really taste it, really take it in. Then the teacher spoke about how far that raisin had traveled and how many people had participated in its travel for it to get here. It was moving and startling. So I think that did definitely have an influence – that, and Wallace Shawn’s great play “The Fever” where he tracks where all the goods come from – I so often forget how much effort goes into my highly convenient life.
5. What does feminism or feminist art or literature mean to you? How do you see feminism today?
AB: I consider myself a feminist but I also feel like the term feels somewhat dated and I’m not sure why. I always think women (who want to) need to be thinking and writing about women and equality is a slippery term and always has nuances to explore. We’re in an interesting era now. Mainly, I’m interested in all kinds of women (and men too) and feel glad and free to write about any kind without worrying about representing a certain role model type. A student once asked me at a reading why I wrote about broken women, (particularly in some of the short stories she’d read) and I was surprised that she felt I should write more ‘strong’ women figures – I’m interested in a huge range of voices and just cherish that freedom!
For more on Aimee Bender’s books, see Powell’s Books Interview.
“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 we 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…” (p.10)
“…with each bite, I thought – mmm, so good, the nest ever, yum – but in each bite: absence, hunger, spiraling, hollows. This cake that my mother had made just for me, her daughter, whom she loved so much I could see her clench her fists from overflow sometimes when I came home from school, and when she would hug me hello I could feel how inadequate the hug was for how much she wanted to give.” (p.10-11)
“It was s homemade ham-and-cheese-and mustard sandwich, on white bread, with a thin piece of lettuce in the middle. Not bad, in the food part. Good ham, flat mustard from a functional factory. Ordinary bread. Tired lettuce-pickers. But in the sandwich as a whole, I tasted a kind of yelling, almost. Like the sandwich itself was yelling at me, yelling love me, love me, really loud. The guy at the counter watched me closely.
Oh, I said.
My girlfriend made it, he said.
Your girlfriend makes your sandwiches? asked George.
She likes doing it, said the guy.
I didn’t know what to say. I put the sandwich down.
What? said the guy.
The sandwich wants you to love it, I said.” (p.65)
“I’m fine, she said. I just want you to know, baby girl. I don’t want you to be worrying so much about me. She said it, and she looked over, and her eyes were big and limpid, a dark-blue color like late-day ocean water. But in the look was still that same yearning. Please worry about me, I saw in there. Her voice not matching her eyes. I knew if I ate anything of hers again, it would likely tell me the same message: Help me, I am not happy, help me – like a message in a bottle sent in each meal to the eater, and I got it.
And now my job was to pretend I did not get the message.
Okay, I said.” (p.80-81)
“I didn’t talk at the table because I was busy surviving the meal. After the incident in the ER, I no longer wanted to advertise my experience to anyone. You try, you seem totally nuts, you go underground. There’s a kind of show a kid can do, for a parent – a show of pain, to try to announce something, and in my crying, in the desperate, blabbering, awful mouth-clawing, I had hoped to get something across. Had it come across, any of it? Nope.” (p.95)
“The first full meal I’d made on my own. My hand shaking a little as I bit in. The sauce was good, and simple, and think. Sadness, rage, tanks, holes, hope, guilt, tantrums. Nostalgia, like rotting flowers. A factory, cold. I pressed the napkin to my eyes.
It’ll be okay, said Dad, patting my hand.” (p.222)
“Kissing George was a little like rolling in caramel after spending years surviving off rice sticks.” (p.237)