When she was a little girl, Lillian discovered the power of food to bring people back to themselves. After Lillian's father left the family, Lillian's mother retreated into a fictional world, her face always hidden behind the pages of a book. Only when Lillian, desperate to reconnect with her mother, enlisted the help of an "Abuelita" from the neighborhood grocery store, did she discover that a perfectly prepared dish, a few "essential ingredients," had the ability to bring her mother back to reality --- and to her daughter.
This ability of food, and cooking, to connect people with themselves, their past and each other is the common theme of Erica Bauermeister's THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS. The novel gets its title from the cooking school that Lillian, now an adult, runs on evenings when her popular, high-end restaurant is closed. On the first Monday of each month, Lillian's restaurant kitchen is filled with a colorful assortment of amateur cooks, some eager to deepen their own culinary connections, some unsure what brought them to this place.
There's Claire, who’s been so smothered by the constant physical and emotional demands of being a young wife and mother that she's forgotten what it means to make time and space for her own interests. There's Carl and Helen, an older couple whose seemingly perfect marriage hides a history of betrayal, redemption and hard work. There's Tom, whose passion for food was ignited by the love of his life. And there's Isabelle, whose short-term memory is failing her in her old age, but whose rich, long life rushes back to the present when she indulges in the nourishing, delicious food Lillian's restaurant prepares.
THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS will likely appeal to fans of THE FRIDAY NIGHT KNITTING CLUB, THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB and other novels where a group encounter serves as the foil for exploring individuals' stories. Unlike those books, however, Bauermeister's is best read not as an overarching story but as a series of linked character studies, as exquisitely prepared and satisfying as the dishes Lillian prepares in her restaurant. Although two of the characters do begin a tentative romance and one fulfills a career aspiration, the focus here is less on where they’re going, plot-wise, and more on where they've been and who they are.
And then there's the food. Bauermeister has a gift for writing about food in sensual, evocative terms, connecting the dish's rich flavors not only to her characters' rich histories but also to the reader's inner palate. "She took a piece of melon in her fingers, wrapped it with a translucent slice of pink meat, and motioned for him to open his mouth. The meat was a whisper of salt against the dense, sweet fruit. It felt like summer in a hot land, the smooth skin in the curve between Charlie's strong thumb and index finger. The wine afterward was crisp, like coming up to the surface of water to breathe." Such intense, emotional descriptions of food deepen and enrich the gems of character studies that comprise the novel. They're also likely to send hungry readers to their own kitchens, where they might find themselves reconnecting to the pleasures of food --- and to their own intriguing life stories.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011
The School of Essential Ingredients