Reviews

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

From Goodreads: 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. Brought together by the power of food and companionship, the lives of the characters mingle and intertwine, united by the revealing nature of what can be created in the kitchen.

The School of Essential Ingredients isn’t so much a novel as a series of short stories strung together. The tie that binds, so to speak, is Lillian’s cooking class. As the reader learns both Lillian’s and the eight students stories, the magic and comfort of food becomes apparent. It rescues a marriage, tempers grief, unites a young couple, and gives a young girl much needed bravery. Overall, the story is simply nice and very sweet. If kindness were a trait that a novel could exude, The School of Essential Ingredients would be a prime example of it.  Although there are essentially nine character studies in this novel, there is no sense of where the characters are headed, it is more about who they were and are.

The crowning achievement of this story is the food. It truly is glorified food porn, which is reason enough for me to like it. The author has a gift for sensually and evocatively describing the preparing and eating of food. For those who do not enjoy food, you’ll likely find this a tedious part of the story. However, if you do, this is what makes the book worth reading. Overall, I enjoyed the book, though it not one I’ll likely read again unless looking for recipe ideas. I will, however, look to see what the author does next.

Of the best parts of the novel is when the class celebrates an alternatives Thanksgiving. They use all the traditional ingredients, but in novel ways. My personal favorite: Pumpkin Ravioli.

Photos: Goodreads, Leigh Beisch/Health

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