Saturday, March 7, 2009

a review of The School of Essential Ingredients

The School of Essential Ingredient by Erica Bauermeister (Putnam Adult, ISBN 978-0399155437)

Would I discourage any readers if I said that the one word that this book brought to mind is...sweet? I hope not, because it is. It is sweet and luscious and passionate and just a little bit magical. And all together a very nice book.

At an early age, Lillian learned a lesson that she would continue to use throughout her life, the almost magical power of food. When her father walked out and left her and her mother, her mother retreated...and I do mean retreated.. to the safe harbor of her books. Now I am sure many of us can sympathize with the comfort a book can offer, but when her mother seems unable to perform even the necessary tasks of daily life, Lillian must step up, first out of necessity but then out of something more. She develops an interest in cooking, at first just to put food on the table for her and her mother, but then in an attempt, and a successful one, to help her mother reconnect to her life. That image, of people confused and lost, somehow finding their way back, helped along on the journey by food, by it's shear sensual delight, it's comforting presence, the joy found in sharing these wonderful creations, appears again and again in The School of Essential Ingredients.

We find Lillian grown up, in her thirties, the owner of a lovely sounding little restaurant, with food so good that people will happily wait for long periods of time for a table, sitting outside, sipping wine and chatting with their fellow potential customers. But the central action of our story will revolve around the back of the restaurant, the kitchen where, on one Monday a month when they are closed, Lillian hold her cooking class. And it is there that we meet the eight students of the current class. There is the older married couple, finding their way back after a betrayal, a heartbroken widower, a kitchen designer newly emigrated to America, a lonely software engineer, a teenager girl, tying to find herself and her way in the world, and an older woman, losing her memories, and a young woman who can barely remember when she was more than a wife and mother.

We will learn about each of them in their own chapter, going back to see the experiences that brought them to Lillian's kitchen and then we will see them all gathered around the worktables, learning not only about food and it restorative, nurturing aspects but also about each other, making connections, making friends and, guided by Lillian's almost magical sense of what each of them is looking for, a number of happy endings.

The School of Essential Ingredients is the first work of fiction by the author but I certainly hope it will not be her last, because first it is a beautifully written book. Then, her characters are realistic and very likable, their stories believable. And then there is the food...all the lovely food. Sadly, Lillian doesn't believe in using recipes because this book will make you want to run into the kitchen and try and duplicate some of the wonderful things the students cook. I guess, going with the tone of the book, you should sort of try and let the ingredients talk to you..but I really thing I do better with a recipe. But I will not hold that against the
This one certainly gets my recommendation. I am sure you will spend several very entertaining hours getting to know this cast of characters and hoping that some of Lillian's sense of the magic of food and cooking will rub off.

By the way, in case you were wondering after the rant on my last review, I loved the cover on this book.

If you want to check out some other reviews of this book, here are a few that might interest you...
A Reader's Respite
Wrighty's Reads
Devourer of Books
Booking Mama

Available from Amazon


  1. As I speak, I am loading this book onto my iPod. I would not be thwarted by the adjective of sweet. I thought Guernsey was sweet, but will most likely be one of my favorite books of this year. Sweet is nice, when I read so much Holocaust stuff. The book is only five discs, so I greatly look forward to flying through it in a few days. Wonderful review, Caite!

  2. I can't but think that you will like this one very much. The tone of it reminds me of Guernsey, which I also liked a great deal.

  3. I loved this book, too. I've recommended it to several friends and they've all loved it too. Great review.

  4. This isn't generally a book I would even notice in the bookstore and think of picking it up. Now that I've read your review, I'll probably will be looking for it next time. Good job!

  5. I have this on my wish list; it looks good. great review.

  6. I love what you said about this book...'It is sweet and luscious and passionate and just a little bit magical.' I totally agree. I loved this book.

  7. Hi Caite, thank you for your kind words on my tribute to Barbara post. It is just so hard to lose someone who has been such a big part of your life for 10 years. It's almost still hard to believe she is actually gone. Please accept my condolences on the loss of your friend also. It seems no one has been left untouched by this insidious disease.

  8. Me again, you're going to be sick of reading my missives. Today, I am giving you the I love your blog award so stop by and pick up the logo and the "rules"

  9. I've been hearing a lot about this one. I'll probably have to get it eventually and I just know I'd like it!


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