Sunday, December 13, 2009

Book Review: The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister

The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister

You know a book is good when you're on page 34 and already starting to recommend it.

In my case, it was to a coworker - an aspiring restauranteur - who stopped by my office as I was reading for 10 minutes during lunch.

(That's the thing about this book. You have to read it on a full stomach, or in the process of attaining a full stomach, because otherwise Erica Bauermeister's culinary descriptions will have you scarfing down anything in sight.)

For this is quite a deliciously decadent little book. It's the story of eight people who are students in a cooking class hosted by Lillian, the proprietor of a restaurant with
" more than 10 tables in all, each table's personality defined by nearby architectural elements, one nestled into a bay window, another engaged in companionable conversation with a built-in-bookshelf. Some tables had views of the garden, while others, hidden like secrets in the darker, protected corners of the room, held their patrons' attention within the edges of their tabletops." (pg. 35)
There is a lot of symbolism weighted in the description of the restaurant. From the number of tables equaling the number of participants in the class, and their placement in the restaurant reflecting circumstances in the students' lives. The cooking class is held on a Monday night, when the restaurant is closed (much like many of the students are in their personal lives) and the kitchen dark, until it comes alive. There are several passages that talk about the lush garden outside - a metaphor, perhaps, for the beautiful life that is awaiting the students once they take that risk, add that spice, let something simmer or come to a boil.

Bauermeister gives her reader a glimpse into the kitchen during each cooking class, concocting simmering scenes of garlic-buttered crabs, fresh handmade pasta, spicy tamales, rich chocolate and the finest wine. The reader is envious, wanting to be right there beside the group as they talk, taste, and together tentatively take the steps they need to heal from life's hurts.
"If you think about it," she [Lillian] went on, "every time we prepare food we interrupt a life cycle. We pull up a carrot or kill a crab - or maybe just stop the mold that's growing on a wedge of cheese. We make meals with those ingredients and in doing so we give life to something else." (pg.42)
The eight come to Lillian's cooking class (which she calls "the school of essential ingredients") at different life stages, and it is in the process of cooking that they discover that they are the essential missing ingredient in each other's lives, the exact spice or flavoring that is needed to make the meal complete.

I absolutely loved this book, and spent much of it wishing I could eat at Lillian's. (The description reminded me of a restaurant called Tony's in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, where my uncle used to play piano before he passed away). Others have said that they wish recipes had been included, and I agree - because if we can't step into the pages and be part of the cooking class or dine at the tables that are built into bookcases and bay windows, then at least let us cook the same foods in the same style and with the same exquisite flair.

Or ... not. Maybe that's the lesson to be learned within The School of Essential Ingredients. That it is up to us to discover who and what the essential ingredients are within our lives, to season them to taste. To create our own signature dish and to dig in, with gusto.

Savoring every morsel with those we love and are destined to love.
What Other Bloggers Had to Say:
Devourer of Books (and a Guest Blog and Recipe from author Erica Bauermeister!)

1 comment:

EricaB said...

Thank you for a lovely review! (and for those of your readers who really want recipes -- I've posted some on my website Check under the heading "Side Dishes" and you'll find Favorite Recipes...)