The School of Essential Ingredients is a lovely new book by Erica Bauermeister. With intimate tables and soft lighting, heavy linens and crystal, glossy hardwood floors and fabulous aromas drifting out of the kitchen, Lillian’s is a place to celebrate, propose, and announce. It’s the kind of restaurant that will surprise and delight, with personal attention from Lillian herself and creative meals that leave all of your senses satisfied.
On Monday nights, Lillian teaches a cooking class at the restaurant. Eight students make their way to class, coming through the side gate and following the golden glow to the kitchen in back, where they will learn to cook from a woman who knows how to inspire her students to create food from the heart and from their memories rather than from a recipe.
Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different student, alternating between reflections of their past and what is happening in the present, how they found their way to the class and how they get to know the other students. Lillian seems to know just what her students need to learn, and the lessons transform not only their culinary skills but also their lives.
Reminiscent of Garden Spells and Like Water for Chocolate, there is a bit of magical realism to the book- but just a touch- not overdone at all. Abuelita is the woman who helped a young Lillian get her mother’s attention through cooking, who taught her to understand what is essential in each situation and what is not. She shows her how food can evoke memories in a person, how you can bring about certain moods, certain behaviors and certain feelings with different types of dishes. Lillian learns well and is able to pass that particular brand of culinary magic on to her students. When they make a white on white cake, it brings back remembrances of the early days of a marriage for two of her students, a spicy tomato sauce brings thoughts of an Italian childhood for another, and a decadent tiramisu acts as the catalyst for a new romance in two more.
Bauermeister’s vividly detailed descriptions of food leave your mouth watering and put you right into Lillian’s kitchen. The writing is richly textured, lush and sensual. It is really quite beautiful. This is a debut novel but felt like it was written by a wise old soul.
To give you an idea of the gorgeous flavor of the writing, and the beautiful imagery, here are a couple of passages. I read an uncorrected proof of The School of Essential Ingredients, so the finished book may differ slightly.
From page 23:
At home Lillian opened the bag and inhaled aromas of orange, cinnamon, bittersweet chocolate and something she couldn’t quite identify, deep and mysterious, like perfume lingering in the folds of a cashmere scarf.
From page 35:
Set between the straight lines of a bank and the local movie theater, the restaurant was oddly incongruous, a moment of lush colors and gently moving curves, like an affair in the midst of an otherwise orderly life. Passersby often reached out to run their hands along the tops of the lavender bushes that stretched luxuriantly above the cast iron fence, the soft, dusty scent remaining on their fingers for hours after.
From page 158:
The air was beginning to fill with the sweet spiciness of roasting corn, the soft whispers of the tortillas flipping, then landing on the grill, the murmured conversation between Abuelita and Antonia, something about grandmothers, it sounded like. Chloe placed the tomato on the chopping block. She was surprised to find how much affection she had for its odd lumpiness. She tested the point of the knife and the surface gave way quickly and cleanly, exposing the dense interior, juices dripping out onto the wooden board, along with a few seeds. Grasping the knife firmly, she drew it in a smooth, consistent stroke across the arc of the tomato, a slice falling neatly to one side.
See what I mean? The whole book is like that! I just opened random pages and easily found wonderful examples. My only complaint about this book is that there are no recipes, however that makes sense since Lillian is teaching her students to cook without using recipes. Still, it would be nice to know how to make these dishes- or to know what essential secret ingredient to add to tonight’s dinner to make my children behave and my husband pay attention!
If you like good fiction and good food, The School of Essential Ingredients, which will be released tomorrow, is the perfect combination of the two. I realize I’m gushing here, but I loved the warm little world within these pages, and was sorry to leave it.
The author’s website can be found HERE.