Book Review - The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermesiter

A flyer at the Issaquah library announced an evening with local writer, Erica Bauermeister, author of a recent novel “The School of Essential Ingredients” but I noticed that it was an old notice, probably forgotten by the library staff. The description about the theme of the novel was intriguing enough for me to look it up and I was thrilled to find a used copy marked down at the Half-Price Bookstore in the next town. I read the novel slowly, over almost two weeks and like the decadent recipes described in it, the taste and fragrance of story lingers with me a week later.

The author brings to life, eight memorable characters, students of the cooking class organized by Lillian, the master chef/owner of a fancy restaurant which bears her name. Lillian is the teacher, an expert at not just creating epicurean delights, but at knowing the link between food and its connection to the core of individuals. Lillian’s anything but ordinary childhood is described in careful detail, the prose rich with imagery, almost like a poem, as it introduces the origin of an unusual fascination with food and its preparation that logically translates into a highly successful restaurant business.

Monday nights when the group of students of mixed heritage and age groups, replete with their present demons and haunting pasts, assembles for the cooking class, the mystery of each character unfolds like the fragrances and flavors of the dishes they prepare. The author is careful with detail but never gives away everything, you are free to visualize the connections between the instances that give insights into each character and perhaps, an indication of their reason for being in the class. As expected, some stories intertwine and progress during the intervening periods.

The book contains recipes embedded in the chapters and in the dialog but does not read like Laura Esquivels’ “Like water for chocolate”, another wonderful book with food as its central theme. As Lillian says early on “The first question people ask me is what are the essential ingredients. I might as well tell you, there isn’t a list and I’ve never had one. Nor do I hand out recipes.”

Through the movement of the characters as they use the medium of food, cooking, and camaraderie, they unveil parts of themselves, some forgotten, some hard to forget, in a leisurely pace, guided gently but surely by their teacher and reach new heights. The book is a great read, not just for the story but its sheer poetic beauty. Just a warning; don’t rush, read it slowly and relish it completely. Only then will the flavor of a classic linger on your palate.