Summary and book reviews of The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

The School of Essential Ingredients

by Erica Bauermeister

The School of Essential Ingredients
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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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Book Summary

A lesson in cake-making leads to reflections on a marriage; tortillas teach a girl to believe in herself. A man learns about love while creating tiramisu. The School of Essential Ingredients follows the lives of eight cooking students and their teacher in a class that meets in Lillian’s restaurant kitchen.

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.

Prologue

Lillian loved best the moment before she turned on the lights. She would stand in the restaurant kitchen doorway, rain- soaked air behind her, and let the smells come to her — ripe sourdough yeast, sweet-dirt coffee, and garlic, mellowing as it lingered. Under them, more elusive, stirred the faint essence of fresh meat, raw tomatoes, cantaloupe, water on lettuce. Lillian breathed in, feeling the smells move about and through her, even as she searched out those that might suggest a rotting orange at the bottom of a pile, or whether the new assistant chef was still double-dosing the curry dishes. She was. The girl was a daughter of a friend and good enough with knives, but some days, Lillian thought with a sigh, it was like trying to teach subtlety to a thunderstorm.

But tonight was Monday. No assistant chefs, no customers looking for solace or celebration. Tonight was Monday, cooking class night.

After seven years of teaching, Lillian knew how her ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Discussion questions

  1. When Claire first walks into Lillian's, she reflects: "When was the last time she had been someplace where no one knew who she was?" Is the anonymity of the kitchen a lure for Lillian's students?
  2. How did you respond to the story of Lillian's upbringing? Would Lillian have been better off with a more traditional home life, like those of her school friends? Do you agree with Abuelita's statement that "sometimes our greatest gifts grow from what we are not given"?
  3. Besides scenes from her childhood, the author discloses very little about Lillian. Why do you think she did this? How would the book be different if we knew more about Lillian's day-to-day life?
  4. As a general ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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).

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Media Reviews

Oregon Live - Elizabeth Lopeman

Bauermeister's language, both lyrical and descriptive, paints warm scenes filled with enticing images of food. While she flirts with narrative tension, she rarely broaches any telling character traits and fuzzy conflicts are neatly resolved. Lillian's subjects are best when they're vehicles for descriptions of delectable things to eat. ... The School of Essential Ingredients reads like a yummy bedtime story, with agreeable characters and dreamy dishes.

Kirkus Reviews

[T]he book feels less empathetic and more hokey and melodramatic ... The stifling humidity of the prose will push a lot of readers out of this kitchen.

Booklist

Each section of this tasty novel tells the story of a different character. The effect is a series of pearl-like vignettes stretched out along a narrative string.

Publishers Weekly

In this remarkable debut, Bauermeister creates a captivating world where the pleasures and particulars of sophisticated food come to mean much more than simple epicurean indulgence.

Author Blurb Kate Jacobs, author of The Friday Night Knitting Club
The perfect recipe for escaping from life's stresses, from savoring the delicious ingredients of Lillian's recipes to the calm and thoughtful rhythm of Erica Bauermeister's luminous prose.

Reader Reviews

Louise J

Absolutely Loved It!!
I loved this story! It was like a savoury meal shared with friends. The aroma and flavours of the food matched the conversation and the moods of those participating in the experience. The pungent aroma of spices almost had a hypnotic effect on the...   Read More

MB Howard

Treat for my senses
I recommend this novel to those who appreciate character driven stories and cook with love.

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Beyond the Book

Cooking by Feel
Although Lillian calls her cooking classes "The School of Essential Ingredients" and has been asked what those are, she doesn't keep a list of them, nor are any of her recipes written down. While she does acknowledge that baking requires a more carefully balanced set of ingredients (she also believes that couples should make their own wedding cakes "as part of preparation for their lives together"), cooking allows considerably more freedom. Cooking is "all about preference."

Most of us are used to a kind of cooking that begins with recipes: a list of measured ingredients and instructions on what to do with them and when to do it. There may be some variations included, but it all seems more to do with science than ...

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