Sunday, October 2, 2011

The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister

In The School of Essential Ingredients, Erica Bauermeister uses a somewhat overworked structure--she creates a group of people, in this case a cooking class, and devotes a chapter to each person, exploring the person's issues/problems and then revealing how being part of the group helps them resolve those issues. Here, the group includes chef Lillian, who found comfort in food when her father left her mother and her mother lost herself in reading; Tom, who is recovering from his wife's death from breast cancer; Claire, who has lost her identity in the daily demands of caring for two small children; Antonia, a kitchen designer faced with recalcitrant clients; Chloe, a young woman so clumsy and uncertain she cannot keep a job or sustain a relationship; Ian, the nerd who yearns for love; Carl and Helen, whose "perfect" marriage was damaged by Helen's affair; and Isabelle, an elderly woman in the early stages of dementia.

The book is predictable, and yet I enjoyed it. Perhaps it's because I like reading about (and eating and preparing) food; perhaps it's because Bauermeister writes so gracefully; perhaps I was simply ready for a sweet story with a positive view of humanity. Whatever the reason, I liked The School of Essential Ingredients and I am taking to heart the notion that "we're all just ingredients . . . What matters is the grace with which you cook the meal."

Favorite passages:
Lillian loved best the moment before she turned on the lights. She would stand in the restaurant kitchen doorway, rain-soaked air behind her, and let the smells come to her--ripe sourdough yeast, sweet-dirt coffee, and garlic, mellowing as it lingered. Under them, more elusive, stirred the faint essence of fresh meat, raw tomatoes, cantaloupe, water on lettuce. Lillian breathed in, feeling the smells move about and through her . . .

How strange, she thought. These people here, they looked at her and thought she was alone, she whose children were with her even in her dreams.

"Our bodies carry our memories of them [loved ones], in our muscles, in our skin, in our bones. My children are right here." She pointed to the inside curve of her elbow. "Where I held them when they were babies. Even if there comes a time when I don't know who they are anymore, I believe I will feel them here."

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