The School of Essential Ingredients


Begin with 1 sensitive, perceptive chef/teacher

Fold in 8 disparate characters, searching for new meaning in their lives

Blend slowly with exquisite, sensual prose

Read and enjoy


51be1lrnnnl__bo2204203200_Lillian tells the students in her Monday night cooking class that there is no list of essential ingredients, that in cooking “you will learn what you need to,” implying that each one of us has a personal list of essential ingredients, one that will become evident to us if we find the proper medium for discovery.  And for each one of Erica Bauermeister’s characters  this appears to be the case.  For Claire, a young woman who fears her identity is being subsumed in the demands of motherhood; Tom, an attorney dealing with a life-altering loss; Carl and Helen, an “old married” couple with surprising secrets; Isabel, an elderly woman whose memory is as brittle as her aging bones; and Antonia, a designer from Italy, creating a new life for herself in America. 

Each one has a hunger that must be fulfilled, a  need as unique as their fingerprint.  Magically, Lillian seems to know not only their need, but the “essential ingredients” with which to to fulfill it.  As she guides her students through the slow and thoughtful preparation of food, each one creates the perfect sustenance for body and soul.   The aromas, textures, and flavors of their creations ignite a process of renewal and recovery, with surprising and unexpected results.

Bauermeister wrote the novel after living in Italy for several years, where  “people celebrated the creation of food in even the most  simple meals.”  Upon her return to the states, and missing this “slow food” process, she decided to take a cooking class.  “And then I started thinking about all the different characters you could have in a class,” she states, “and started wondering which foods would affect each one – revive a memory, create an epiphany, change the direction of a life.”  

 Bauermeister writes so lovingly of food and it’s creation, that cooking and eating become more an artistic process than a practical one. 

Tom skewered a piece (of melon) with his fork and put it in his mouth.  The flavor opened like a flower across his tongue, soft and sweet.  He started to talk, and then stopped, holding the taste inside as it dissolved into juice.

Charlie watched him.  “Now we’ll try some prosciutto with it.”  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.  They ate slowly, and yet more slowly, until the bowl was empty.

The School of Essential Ingredients  is, of course, one of  the new genre of “group books” ~ novels which place a group of characters in a common setting, a setting that ultimately helps them develop their relationships and brings them to new understanding about their lives.  The Friday Night Knitting Club (and its sequel Knit Two) and The Reading Group, come to mind as other examples.  Genre or not, I rather like this type of novel.  It brings together all the elements of a good read for me…interesting characters with lives and problems not unlike my own and a portrait of a group dynamic at work.  

It’s a bonus if the focal point for the gathering is an activity I’m interest in ~like cooking and eating! 

Now tell me, have you even taken a cooking class?    Or have you even been in a group that changed your life?


7 thoughts on “The School of Essential Ingredients

  1. Your synopsis made me hungry! My cooking repertoire is extremely limited. Luckily my h is a tremendous cook, an even greater achievement when you consider that we’re vegetarians.

  2. Was just at B&N. Selected the book (above) to page through with my giant mochanillacaramel whatever. I was instantly charmed. I will calmly await the soft cover. I am doing well in my switch from book-buying ninny to library card toting reader. It’s working out fairly well.

    And on a completely different note, have I ever been in a group that changed my life? Yes, it was a writing group. It lasted nearly 8 years. I cannot, to this day, tell you why we were able to keep it up except that we were all on a path to write and have someone, or someones, read it. How did it change my life? It allowed me to layer my interest in writing and sharing and working out details, both on paper and in life. It was an awesome group whose imprint was all about story. Above all, believe it or not, I think it made me a better listener.

  3. Oh my gosh, I think I have to read this book, for the one I’m just finishing writing now is full of the kitchen (I just wrote a long paella scene).

    And what a gorgeous cover.

    I had not heard of this one before.

  4. What a fascinating approach. I had not heard of this book, or for that matter the others you mention, and I love the way you review it. Must definitely have a look, but like Oh I will wait for the soft covered one! I am not an avid cook but enjoy putting together something different every so often… With respect to having been involved with groups that changed my life , no, I’ve never had the experience. Good or bad? I don’t know, I’ve had country-changing experiences, culture changing experiences and yes, they did involve people, but not in an ‘organised’ way…

  5. One more essential ingredient…sprouted 100% whole grain flour can be substituted one for one in recipes and digests as a vegetable. Shiloh Farms now distributes the most amazing organic sprouted flours. Couldn’t live without it.

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