The School of Essential Ingredients – Book Review

schoolofessentialingredientsThe more she cooked, the more she began to view spices as carriers of the emotions and memories of the places they were originally from and all those they had traveled through over the years. She discovered that people seemed to react to spices much as they did to other people, relaxing instinctively into some, shivering into a kind of emotional rigor mortis when encountering others. By the time she was twelve, Lillian had begun to believe that a true cook, one who could read people and spices, could anticipate reactions before the first taste, and thus affect the way a meal or an evening would go. – from The School of Essential Ingredients –

Lillian is drawn to food and its magic from the time she is a small child – intuitive and open, she sees food as a way to reach out to others emotionally. When Lillian grows up, she opens a restaurant and starts a cooking school. But the school is less about cooking and more about the people who arrive at the restaurant to learn about food.

The School of Essential Ingredients is about the lives of eight different people who gather each Monday at Lillian’s restaurant. They arrive isolated from each other, but soon their lives interconnect in ways they could not have guessed. They each gain insight into themselves and others, and are transformed by the lessons they learn about food. There is an older married couple whose lives have been touched by betrayal; an Italian woman who is finding her way in America; a man whose sadness permeates the room; a young girl who needs to learn to believe in herself; a mother who has lost herself in giving to her family; a man whose belief in perfection has left him lonely; and an elderly woman whose memory has forsaken her. And then there is Lillian – the woman who brings them all together and seems to know what each person needs before they do.

Erica Bauermeister has written each character’s story as a series of interconnected narrations – almost like short stories with a central theme. Her language is rich and evocative. Her descriptions of food are lush and sensual – bringing in the colors, aromas, textures and flavors of food in a way which brings the meals to life. As Bauermeister uncovers the mystery of each character’s background, she offers the reader a glimpse into forgiveness, sadness, joy and self-discovery. And she shows us that food is much more than what we put into our mouths – instead it can be healing while it feeds our souls and stimulates our memories.

I thoroughly enjoyed this charming book. Bauermeister’s effortless prose and deep understanding of the human condition provide insight into her characters and give new meaning to the idea of cooking.



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    • Jenny on April 19, 2009 at 08:12

    I’m so in love with books that have a bunch of different people all coming together for some reason. I tend not to read these books about cooking, because they depress me a little bit – I am the most shockingly awful cook there has ever been in all of time. But this sounds great!

  1. I’ve been trying to win this book for so long – I just may have to break down and go to the library! Great review!

    • Kathy on April 19, 2009 at 08:39

    I really enjoyed this book, too. I couldn’t put it down, but I didn’t want it to end.

    • Karen on April 19, 2009 at 12:28

    I have seen this book around quite a bit and think it looks gorgeous – good to know it is a great read too.

    • JoAnn on April 19, 2009 at 15:17

    I recently listened to this book and it’s a great audio, too!

    • Teddy on April 19, 2009 at 16:49

    Wonderful review Wendy. This book is on my TBR.

    • Wendy on April 20, 2009 at 13:18

    Jenny: Even if you don’t like to cook, I think you might like this one. It uses the concept of food to explore these characters’ lives – and it is well done!

    Rhapsodyinbooks: It is a good read…you should definitely check it out!

    Kathy: It was sort of a comfort read, wasn’t it?

    Karen: It has been getting great reviews.

    JoAnn: Will pop over and check out your review today! Thanks for the link.

    Teddy: Thank you my dear…you’ll love this one!

    • Tara on April 21, 2009 at 08:37

    I really liked this one, too! I’ll be watching for your review of Follow Me – I have that one in my stack, and I’ll be reader Scott’s novel Tourmaline later this year with my book club.

  2. I really enjoyed this book. Great review.

  3. I just won this book from bermudaonion’s blog, and can’t wait for it to arrive!

    • Wendy on April 22, 2009 at 17:07

    Tara: I will be posting my review of “Follow Me” on Monday (along with a giveaway!).

    Swapna: Thanks 🙂

    Serena: Oh, I think you’ll enjoy it!!

    • Kristy on April 26, 2009 at 07:24

    I’ve heard such good things about this book. I’m glad you agree. I want to read it soon.

    • Wendy on April 26, 2009 at 07:55

    Kristy: I think you’ll enjoy it – it is a real comfort read.

  4. I loved this book! I wish I lived near Seattle so I could attend one of her events (posted here on my blog). This is my idea of a fun cooking school!

    • Wendy on May 1, 2009 at 11:47

    Les: Thanks for the link to your review – I have you on feeder, but I don’t remember reading your review! Definitely a cooking school I’d go to!

    • Anna on May 15, 2009 at 20:35

    I loved this one, too. I added your link to my review here.

    • Wendy on May 21, 2009 at 08:39

    Anna: Good to see! And THANK YOU for the link!

    • Amy on March 3, 2012 at 09:01

    I found this book extremely disappointing. Insipid and flat, the characters had no substance, other than cliche after cliche of predictable pap. And what’s with all the similes that make no sense? “…inhaling the warm smell of corn and melting butter, soft as a mother’s hand moving across the back of her almost sleeping child…” More often than not when reading this book I found myself both confused and nauseous.

    This is a fine book if you don’t mind being patronized, and don’t want to read a book of any substance.

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