The 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.