Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients is a beautifully written story of friendship, revelation and redemption achieved through food. The scene is that of a cooking class, and each lesson is tied to a character’s personal story and unique difficulties which, through cooking with certain ingredients and eating certain foods, are overcome.
Without wanting to give too much away, I must say that the book as a whole is delightful, but it is the opening chapter that moved this book into my top 10 favorites list. This chapter tells the story of a mother who has buried herself in books to hide from grief and who “enjoys every part of a book…[but] collected exquisite phrases and complicated rhythms, descriptions that undulated across a page like cake batter pouring in to a pan, [and] read aloud to put the words in the air.” I do not think this is the normal way of reading, but sometimes I truly do read this way. I am often bursting to share turns of phrase or searching through books that I read years ago trying to find a single paragraph that moved me so profoundly that I return to it time and again. The title character of this chapter, Lillian, is a young girl who learns to cook through trial and error, gains confidence from observation, and learns to cook based on instinct and to the needs of the person (or people) she is feeding, her mother. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I am able to cook in the same way that Lillian learns to, I think most home cooks try very hard to make good food that people enjoy eating and that is certainly true of me.
To top off my thorough enjoyment of the story, the novel is filled with good ideas for cooking and the most wonderful non-recipes, such as “Take ingredients on the prep table, chop as need be. Butterfly turkey and flavor inside and out, as you like. Make a package. Send it,” which are the instructions given in the cooking class for stuffed turkey breast with rosemary, cranberries, and pancetta. This idea and function of recipes is so simple and well-aligned with my experiences in the kitchen that I was completely charmed by this novel beginning to end.
Even if you aren’t very interested in food, I think there is beauty and peace to be found within this novel; though of course, those who love the preparation and consumption of food will appreciate this story more fully. Enjoy!