By: Erica Bauermeister
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars
The School of Essential Ingredients follows the lives of eight students who gather in Lillian's Restaurant every Monday night for cooking class. It soon becomes clear, however, that each one seeks a recipe for something beyond the kitchen. Students include Claire, a young mother struggling with the demands of her family; Antonia, an Italian kitchen designer learning to adapt to life in America; and Tom, a widower mourning the loss of his wife to breast cancer. Chef Lillian, a woman whose connection with food is both soulful and exacting, helps them to create dishes whose flavor and techniques expand beyond the restaurant and into the secret corners of her students' lives. One by one the students are transformed by the aromas, flavors, and textures of Lillian's food, including a white-on-white cake that prompts wistful reflections on the sweet fragility of love and a peppery heirloom tomato sauce that seems to spark one romance but end another.
"We are all just ingredients. What matters is the grace with which you cook the meal"
I read this for the first time about 3 years ago and the story has stuck with me. Over the weekend I had the pleasure of listening to it again and I grew to love it even more. Bauermeister has such an amazing way with language. Her descriptions are rich and leave you more than satisfied. The language brings pleasure to the ear. Words blending together with grace and beauty, leaving the heart sated yet somehow wanting more. She is decadent with her words - rich and full. When I finished I immediately put all of her books on hold a the library. I wanted more. There is healing and hope in her stories. She sheds light on the good in humanity and the struggles that we all face in our daily lives, from insecurity in ourselves or our relationships, to loss of loved ones and the loss of ourselves.
Lillian is a force for good, having learned the healing power of food as a child she shares her almost magical gift with her students in her cooking class. This book has each chapter focused on a different student in the class as we learn more about each one, we also see how they grow together and are healed through the essential ingredients.
This isn't a fast paced book, there is no central conflict or inciting incident. It is a character study into different lives - a mother establishing her selfhood outside of her maternal role, a young woman establishing who she is beyond a clumsy girlfriend, a man grieving the loss of his beloved wife. We go on a journey to know these people and to see how they learn, grow and heal. It is a book that can give hope that the simple things in life can help us heal too.
This is also a book replete with quotes that I want to write down and put on my mirror. I love this author and am going to find and read everything else of hers that I can. I hope she continues for a long career.