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
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?