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The School of Essential Ingredients

I finished this book last night and have given quite a bit of thought about how to review it today. The book came highly recommended by several other book bloggers, most notably Kathy at Bermuda Onion’s Weblog. I am somewhat ambivalent about the book: on the one hand I absolutely LOVED Erica’s Bauermeister’s writing style – especially her detailed descriptions of food. On the other hand, I wish that her characters had been more fully developed. But…..I am not sure that wish is a valid one as I don’t think that was the author’s intended purpose for this novel. Let me see if I can explain myself…..

The School of Essential Ingredients refers to a cooking school which meets monthly in the kitchen of a local restaurant owned by Lillian. Lillian has been fond of cooking since she was about 8 years old and is truly passionate about the ingredients, the methods of preparation, and the customers who savor the finished product. The book focuses on one particular cooking class: 8 students who come from all different walks of life who meet on Monday nights over the course of several months. While at the outset of the class all of the students but 2 (a husband/wife team) are strangers to one another, by the end of the sessions they have all grown fond one another. Each month the menu changes, and the meals are quite varied: fresh crabs with garlic butter sauce – fresh homemade pasta and marinara sauce – authentic homemade tortillas – and even a white-on-white cake made from scratch.

The author focuses on the food that is being prepared while at the same time interweaving narrative about the class participants. The book is divided into 8 parts – each part focusing on the story of a particular student. I enjoyed reading the background of each character — each one totally different from all the others. The author did a wonderful job of bringing us into that character’s life at this particular moment in time. All characters have a particular life issue that they are trying to deal with – and the cooking class is a way for them to rest, relax and put life into perspective. There is a new mom who is needing to feel like an adult again; there is a recent widower who is still in mourning of the untimely death of his young wife; there is a young girl still in search of the calling on her life; there is the married couple who has recently dealt with the issue of infidelity. The author quickly and adequately introduced their life’s struggle and effectively elicited my compassion. What I wanted was even more information about these characters. I was so drawn into their lives that I wanted to see how it all turned out. When that didn’t happen, I felt frustrated and even cheated. BUT…..I then took a step back and realized that what I wanted was not what the author intended. The author wanted to show us how perfect strangers can come together and share in intimate details of each other’s lives – but then move on. This is true; I have experienced it myself. So I cannot fault the author for not fulfilling something that she did not, in fact, set out to do.

Lest I leave you with the wrong impression — this book is very well written. The author has a way of writing about food that evokes all senses — not just the sense of taste. In fact, I did not find myself hungry after reading her vivid descriptions, but rather in awe of the beauty of food and meal preparation. Food is as much a feast for the eyes and nose and fingers as it is for the palate, and Bauermeister’s descriptions tantalize all of them. For example, in preparing a white cake from scratch she describes watching the mixer:

The paddles continued their revolutions around the bowl, and the class watched the image in the mirror above the counter, entranced, as the sugar met and mingled with the butter, each drawing color and texture from the other, expanding, softening, lifting up the sides of the bowl in silken waves. Minutes passed, and still Lillian waited. Finally, when the butter and sugar reached the cloudlike consistency of whipped cream, she turned off the motor. “There,” she said. “Magic.” (page 68)

Or….when the author describes the preparation of the final meal of the season:

The class stood around the large prep table, two cheerful red pots perched on stands at each end, heated by small flickering silver cans underneath. The smell of warming cheese and wine, mellowed with the heat, rose languorously toward their faces, and they all found themselves leaning forward, hypnotized by the smell and the soft bubbling below them. Lillian took a long, two-pronged fork and skewered a piece of baguette from the bowl nearby, dipping it in the simmering fondue and pulling it away, trailing a bridal veil of cheese, which she deftly wrapped around her fork in a swirling motion. (page 203)

I could read this kind of intoxicating writing all day. I am sure that Bauermeister could make a plate of mashed potatoes sound like a work of art — and I would want to be one of the first to read it. In fact I thought I would love to see a coffee table book, filled with beautiful still-life photographs of delectable food — with her mesmerizing descriptions underneath each picture. With School of Essential Ingredients, the plot and characters are secondary to the writer’s way with words — and for that reason alone I would give the book a rating of 4.5 out of 5.

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