Wednesday, February 11, 2009
The School of Essential Ingredients
Erica Bauermeister's novel, The School of Essential Ingredients, is one of those special novels to savor. Every bit of it is delectable, beginning with the cover. But, the book itself! From the opening sentence, the book draws the reader into a place that is warm and welcoming. The story envelopes you in sensual experiences of taste, and touch, and smell. And, then it quietly closes the pages itself, and turns out the light on the experience.
Monday nights were special nights at Lillian's restaurant, the night she opened up only for small cooking classes. It was a series of these that brought together eight people who came for different reasons. You get to know them in separate chapters that tell what led them to Lillian's, but they're chapters that expose each person to food, and the feeling and taste that will help them move on with life.
After Lillian welcomes the new class, we meet Claire, the mother of two children, who no longer knows who she is without her children. Another classmate wisely asks her, "What do yo do that makes you happy?" Carl and Helen tell their stories separately, but they are a long-time married couple, who had to find their ways to this point in life. There is the young woman who moved from Italy just four years earlier, the older woman knowing she's losing her memories, the man who lost the love of his life to cancer. Each one of these people, and a few others, find their past, their memories, and their future, through the smell and taste, and experience of shared cooking and food.
The prologue subtly invites the reader in. "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." Who can resist the scents, the light, the warmth of this opening? And, every chapter in Erica Bauermeister's book, every paragraph, is meant to keep the reader totally absorbed in the sensual experiences here. Lillian shares lessons in life, not just lessons in cooking. The School of Essential Ingredients, as Lillian calls her sessions, is much more than a cooking school. When Lillian turns out the light on this season of classes, we're forced to leave the book with a sigh of contentment, and longing for more.
Erica Bauermeister's website is www.ericabauermeister.com.
The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. G.P. Putnam's Sons, ©2009. ISBN 9780399155437 (hardcover), 256p.