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Book Review: The School of Essential Ingredients

Erica Bauermeister's The School of Essential Ingredients

Today’s post is a departure from the usual for me.  I have posted two book reviews but they have both been cookbooks, namely The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and Earth to Table. Thanks to a review copy from the good people at Penguin Canada I have the chance to share my first review of a work of fiction, Erica Bauermeister’s The School Of Essential Ingredients.  Not to worry, food is on almost every page of this book–and not just because I’m a messy eater when I read.

The book is the story of Lillian’s cooking school for beginners and is based around profiles of her eight students: Claire, Carl, Antonia, Tom, Chloe, Isabelle, Helen, and Ian.  For each chapter one of the characters is the focus and we learn about their lives and the experiences that they bring (and that bring them) to a cooking class that is more about the people than the recipes.

When reading books like The School of Essential Ingredients that skew solidly towards character development I often get the sense that as a younger-than-forty male I am not part of the target audience.  This impression is frequently reinforced by the one-dimensional, usually negative male characters that litter the pages of novels like Atwood’s The Robber Bride.  I suppose I’m disclosing a prejudice that I took into my reading of this book. One that I was happy to have unfulfilled.  The men who attend Lillian’s cooking class are not only complex and realistic but are also capable of growth and improvement.

The detail that Bauermeister manages for a cast of characters with such a diverse range of age and life experience is the book’s most striking feature.  I found myself drawn by a recognition of similar experiences to some of Tom’s flashbacks to his time dating the exhilarating Charlie–does every new couple compare stories of bones broken in childhood?–who introduced him to such wonders as “prosciutto as thin as leaves” with melon.  But Isabelle, Helen, and Carl–all older than both the author and me–were also sketched with the sort of believable human detail that made them vicariously likable.

There were points in the novel when the author’s style grated on my nerves.  Food is evocative and emotional but using it as an analogy for life and love can, as demonstrated by this quotation taken from Ian’s chapter, easily veer too far towards the flowery and melodramatic.

The frosting was a thick buttercream, rich as a satin dress laid against the firm, fragile texture of the cake.  With each bite, the cake melted first, then the frosting, one after another, like lovers tumbling into bed.

Happily, this problem actually seems to get better as the book progresses.  By Helen’s chapter in the last quarter of Eseential Ingredients the heat of Provence is described in a more comfortably direct (if not entirely literal) way as:

It was hot in the afternoons, a heat that slammed through their open car windows and made them pant, pushed down on their shoulders and heads until finally they retreated to the shuttered cool of their room, to the delight of pounding water in their white-tiled shower, and finally to bed, where they stayed like teenagers until dinner.

I wonder why most fiction seems so peripherally concerned with food.  Eating is something we do every day and is an experience that involves all of our senses with just about every meal.  I suppose the short and unsatisfying answer is that as we see with Erica Bauermeister’s work it takes a very skilled hand to properly describe food and cooking while still leaving space for character and plot.  Food is routine and if we let it step through the looking-glass into the world of evocative colours, tastes, smells, and memories it can take over.

I can turn off the food-related part of my brain,  I swear, but when a book is so centrally-based on cooking I can’t entirely ignore some technical points.  As well as avoiding my nitpicking a book about characters who cook should be careful not to fall into the trap filled by contemporary crime thrillers that repeatedly refer to “floppy disk drives” and “personal video recorders”.  I always feel like these authors (Robert Ludlum and company) having received a reply to their typewritten letter from a professor of computer science with terms and definitions don’t bother worrying about fluent usage.

The offenses are minor but I noticed that spaghetti and angel hair pasta are both best made when extruded so it’s doubtful that a chef like Lillian would make them herself but would be more likely to make linguine or tagliatelle.  As Alton Brown discussed on a recent episode of Good Eats, onions don’t really go translucent when cooked but that’s a misdirection started by Julia Child herself so I’m willing to look the other way.

On balance the technical descriptions are accurate and even excellent at times.  Lillian has the students add dairy to the browned meat for a meat sauce to protect it from the acid in the tomatoes and wine.  This is a good idea that I know works well but often forget to do it myself when whipping up on impromptu pasta sauce.  Even better is the use of a brush to paint the espresso-liqueur mixture onto the cookies for Ian’s tiramisu recipe near the end of the book.  Anyone who has made tiramisu has struggled to  find the perfect method to get just enough of the liquid’s flavour without making the cookies soggy and this strikes me as a workable (if slightly fussy) solution.

The School of Essential Ingredients is almost entirely about the characters so I don’t know that it would be for everyone.  It’s devotion to cooking is not pure or technical enough for it to stand beside Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential or Buford’s Heat but for readers who cook with skill and eat with relish that enjoy a strongly character-driven read will find it excellent.  Valentine’s Day is approaching and I’ve always thought that a cooking class would be a great gift for a couple to give each other.  The minor caveat to this is that unless a class permanently changes the way you cook the gift is an ephemeral one.  But, Essential Ingredients given to a cooking class valentine would be a romantic, permanent reminder.

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  1. Thank you for such a well-written and thoughtful review. I really appreciate your insights!

  2. Anita Menon says:

    Love your insightful reviews.

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