BookBrowse Reviews The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The School of Essential Ingredients

by Erica Bauermeister

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister X
The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Jan 2009, 256 pages
    Jan 2010, 272 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Joanne Collings

Buy This Book

About this Book



A lesson in cake-making leads to reflections on a marriage, while tortillas teach a girl to believe in herself ....

The new year is not so new anymore, and as we tear those daily calendar pages off, many of the carefully made and sincerely meant New Year's Resolutions begin to be discarded as well. The government, which keeps track of such things, lists "lose weight" and "eat right" as among the most popular resolutions of Americans. I suspect that Lillian, the wonderfully intuitive cook and slightly mysterious central character of Erica Bauermeister's nourishing first novel would advise those resolution-makers to instead seek a better relationship with food, and to learn what cooking is really about: healing as well as comfort.

Lillian and the eight students attending her current cooking class (held monthly in the kitchen of her restaurant) each get a chapter, a structure that can be difficult to build a novel around when there are so many characters and so few chapters. But Bauermeister demonstrates a sure hand—impressive in a first novel—in using each chapter to create relationships among characters and advance the plot even as she concentrates on one character and the cooking lesson for that month. The monthly schedule is key; it allows her to move through seasons and provides off-page time for characters' lives to progress. Characters form relationships: there are romances, mentorships, and a network of caregiving created as their lives intersect both in and out of the kitchen.

Lillian learned how to cook in order to bring her mother back to her after her father left them. "In this new life, Lillian's mother's face became a series of book covers, held in place where eyes, nose, or mouth might normally appear. Lillian soon learned that book covers could forecast moods like facial expressions, for Lillian's mother swam deeply into the books she read, until the personality of the protagonist surrounded her like a perfume applied by an indiscriminate hand." She is assisted in her efforts by Abuelita, the proprietor of a small grocery store Lillian comes across during a walk. Cooking becomes Lillian's religion and her life's work; she recognizes that many of her students come to her needing the kind of guidance she continues to seek from Abuelita. The recipes used in cooking class are unwritten and created collectively. Lillian knows that her students must identify their own "essential ingredients" and provide their own recipes for both their food and their lives.

Although the characters in the cooking class come from what may seem predictable situations—among them are a young mother, a grieving widower, a teenager in a bad relationship, a woman whose mental grasp on her life is slipping away, a long-married couple with a secret—Bauermeister's treatment of them rises well above stereotypical. Claire, the young mother of two small children, feels that "since she became a mother it was as if her body had become invisible to anyone but her children. When was the last time someone she didn't know had looked at her as if she was ... what? A possibility."

Isabelle "found more often than not she was lost—words, names, her children's phone numbers arriving and departing from her mind like trains without a schedule." She wonders "'if it is foolish to make new memories when you know you are going to lose them.'"

Bauermeister treats all her characters with similar care and imagination. Her novel is as magical and healing as the food Lillian and her students create. It's a food novel with ideas, but not recipes. It offers lessons on everything from a simple crab dish (with instructions on how to kill the crabs) to homemade tortillas and salsa ("it was both satisfying and invigorating, full of textures and adventures, like childhood held in your hand") to an elegant white cake with white icing. I read it after Christmas, during a down time in the season and in my life. It brought me more than great pleasure: it made me feel better, but more, it made me feel hopeful and helped me to remember that arid periods pass, that life gets its flavors back.

Reviewed by Joanne Collings

This review was originally published in February 2009, and has been updated for the January 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access, become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: I Found My Tribe
    I Found My Tribe
    by Ruth Fitzmaurice
    Ruth O'Neill was only 28 when she married film director Simon Fitzmaurice in 2004. Changing her...
  • Book Jacket: The Art of the Wasted Day
    The Art of the Wasted Day
    by Patricia Hampl
    Patricia Hampl wants you to know that daydreaming is not a waste of a day. Nor is spending time ...
  • Book Jacket: Circe
    by Madeline Miller
    Towards the end of Madeline Miller's novel Circe, the titular nymph is questioned by her son ...
  • Book Jacket: All the Names They Used for God
    All the Names They Used for God
    by Anjali Sachdeva
    Pre-publication press has already compared Anjali Sachdeva to Kelly Link and other genre-blending ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner

A love story for things lost and restored, a lyrical hymn to the power of forgiveness.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Other People's Houses
    by Abbi Waxman

    A hilarious and poignant novel about four families and the affair that changes everything.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Leavers

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

One of the most anticipated books of 2017--now in paperback!


Word Play

Solve this clue:

T E H N Clothes

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.