Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The School of Essential Ingredients
by Erica Bauermeister

Genre: General fiction
Publisher, Year: Putnam, 2009
Other Works: Debut
Flags: Teen angst, tenuous references
Rating: A+, or Must Read Now!
ChallengeLibrary, Outdo Yourself
Premise: A collection of stories about people and food, and how they go together.

Another book club pick, The School of Essential Ingredients is Bauermeister’s breakout novel. This is a book for foodies, but unlike some novels, I felt like the author paid equal attention to her storytelling as to her obvious love of food. And to top it off, she’s also a talented writer. A joy from beginning to end--if you are looking for the perfect summer read, this is your book.

The book begins with a little background of the teacher, Lillian, who runs a cooking school out of her restaurant. As a girl, she uses food to lure her mother out of a deep depression, and as a result, cultivates a deep tie to cooking and knows its power to change people. Then, we meet several strangers who come together at Lillian's restaurant to learn how to make good food. Each brings a fresh perspective, each with a unique life circumstance. And Lillian, acting as a sort of food therapist, finds a way to bring out the best in each of her students, simply by getting them to cook.

When I read (well, read some) of Julia Child’s My Life in Paris, I thought I had experienced that rare quality that foodies love: the description of cooking and eating that stirs something in the soul, meaning the words not only make you intensely hungry, but also make you appreciate food more, make you want to spend some quality time with a crab or some pasta or the perfect white cake. But this book really hit a chord with me because Bauermeister was not only able to make me appreciate good food, she made me realize that food affects every part of life. Yes, yes, we’ve all heard the term “comfort” food, but this goes so much further than something deep fried and dripping in grease. This is food that heals, gives courage, offers a fresh start, makes us better people. Food can do all that? Bauermeister thinks so, and I believe her.

She also made me understand that it’s not just the eating of food, but the creation of different flavors and textures that makes the difference. The act of cooking is a sort of balm--a natural, intuitive way to tap into our inner selves and to share those secrets with others, to connect with people. Okay, now this is really waxing philosophical.

This author knows her way around figurative language.  I’ve never read such beautiful and uniquely correct similes in my life. Her figurative language expressed the emotion of the characters as perfectly as could ever be hoped for. My ears were thanking me with the passage of each one--to the point where I had to laugh and actually go back and read them aloud to myself. And there are so many. You’d think with such a repetitious writing style that the descriptions would become stale--a parody of itself. Couldn’t be further from the truth. The richness of the language was almost good enough to eat.

And Bauermeister is able to accomplish all this AND have a little fun, too. This book is packed full of little anecdotes, sometimes tragic, sometimes whimsical, but always full of meaning. Each student’s chapter is narrated personally, and that’s sort of a pet peeve of mine. I have to say that it does get confusing, keeping so many voices straight. However, this book is so endearing, I can’t say that I minded it much--except that I wish I could have been privy to more of the storyline with some of the characters.  We get to know each one a little, but none a lot. And because of that, I didn’t really feel like I knew any of the characters well. But for all its charm, I just can’t see that as a fault. Instead, I think the construction reflects the main intent: that each student in the class is like unto an essential ingredient. There are so many ingredients to discover, we can’t spend too much time favoring just one or two because it’s the diversity of flavors that make a dish delicious.

An absolute delight. If you are looking for a vacation or beach book--this is it. And you’ll be happy to know that even though it’s a light and easy read, it’s not just fluff. This book will leave a lasting impression, too.

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