Monday, November 21, 2011

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
272 pages
Published January 2010 by Penguin Group
Source: Bought this one

When Lillian was a little girl, her father left Lillian and her mother. Lillian's mother fell into books, spending day and night reading aloud, oblivious to everything around her. Lillian, in search of a way to bring her mother back, turned to food. She knew that if she made the right foods, she could bring her mother back to reality. When she discovered a little food shop operated by Abuelita, she discovered the true magic that the right kinds of food have.

Years later, Lillian owns her own restaurant. Once a month, on the nights that the restaurant is closed, Lillian opens her kitchen up for a cooking school, a place where she can show others what she has learned.

Tom has come to the lessons through a gift from his sister, a gift she gave him to help him deal with his grief. Antonia, a kitchen designer, is adjusting to life in America as she learns to show her customers how a kitchen can be much more than just a place to cook. Carl and Helen are a long-married couple working to rebuild their relationship. Young Chloe has lost what little confidence she had as her relationship with her boyfriend begins to fail. Claire is looking for something all her own, something that makes her more than just "the mom and wife." A computer wizard, Ian was sure he couldn't come to the class without knowing how to cook but learning how created more questions than answers. And Isabelle, who had years ago found an inner strength she had not known she had, is now dealing with the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Lillian will teach them all so much more than just how to cook. She'll teach them not just the essential ingredients in the kitchen but the essential ingredients in life. Along the way, they will bond in a way none of them would ever have thought possible.

I recently read Bauermeister's Joy For Beginners. This one is structured in a similar way; each of the characters is allowed their own chapter where they may or may not eventually interact with the other characters as Bauermeister explores their backstory. I liked it in Joy. I liked it even better in School where Bauermeister has interspersed the individual stories with the evenings in the school, bringing all of the characters together.

Of all of the books I've read about food the past few weeks, this is the one that most impressed me with it's ability to make the food it described come alive. Who would ever have thought a description of making white sauce could make me leave a book to go to the kitchen? Bauermeister has a unique way with words, bringing all of the reader's senses and memories a part of the book.
"...Lillian looked at the sauce, an untouched snowfield, its smell the feeling of quiet at the end of an illness, when the world is starting to feel gentle and welcoming again."
As with Joy, Bauermeister's has created a wide range of characters, some of which I connected with much more than others. Lillian's story touched my heart; Tom's story broke it, in no small part because of things that have happened in my life recently. Which, of course, is part of what makes one book affect people in so many different ways.
"For Lillian's mother, every part of a book was magic, but what she delighted in most were the words themselves. Lillian's mother collected exquisite phrases and complicated rhythms, descriptions that undulated across a page like cake batter pouring into a pan, read aloud to put the words in the air, where she could hear as well as see them."

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