BookBrowse Reviews The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

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The School of Essential Ingredients

by Erica Bauermeister

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2009, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2010, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Joanne Collings

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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.



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