Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Jenn's Review: The School of Essential Ingredients

Summary: 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.

Review: In search of more food-lit, I chose this book because it was recommended by Sarah Addison Allen and it did not disappoint. Although it's not as warm and enveloping as Allen's books, it is lush and rich in food and detail. This is not a fast read in that if read too quickly the subtle nuances will be missed and the prose bludgeoned. And her prose are scrumptious and poetic in details and description.

Erica Bauermeister has selected a daring format for her novel that could have been a huge disaster if not well executed. Each chapter deals with a separate individual in the cooking class and how food and the class changes their life (the danger being a disconnected story). However Bauermeister weaves the thread of commonality through Lillian, the class, and the food. She doesn't go back and tell the story from each person's point of view (which could have been terribly tedious and drab), but she continues the story's forward momentum, advancing the story chronologically with each character. We start with Lillian, the teacher of the class, and how she came to food, and how food came to her. Then she moves on to Claire, a mother who has forgotten to take time for herself, then Carl, for whom food is a reminder of the woman he fell in love with... each one gleans something from the monthly cooking lesson whether it be introspection, self-confidence, or a direction for their life. Food doesn't solve all problems, but it serves as the inspiration.

My only regret is that I felt that the end came a little abruptly, and was left a little too open ended. Lillian is the common thread in each chapter that unifies the story, and I wish that Bauermeister had ended with a chapter on Lillian's life and food as an adult, in balance with the way she started with Lillian's life and food as a child with the first chapter, giving the book pillars so to speak. The epilogue dealt with it to some extent, but for me it was a little too subtle. It left me wanting more.


Although Bauermeister has taught literature for years and written several books of book lists, this is her first novel and I think it was a highly successful venture. The writing is lyrical and poignant. I look forward to reading her next novel.

Final Take:  4.75/5

1 comments :

Anna April 24, 2009 at 8:16 AM  

I really loved this book. I also wish there had been another chapter about Lillian grown up. I wanted the book to be longer because I fell in love with the characters and Bauermeister's writing. Thanks for the review!

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

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