Thursday, August 19, 2010

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

One of our regular patrons at the library blew in the other day with this book in her hand, declaring that we must read it, all of us, and preferably immediately. It would only take us an afternoon, she said. We would love it. We would not want to put it down. Uncharacteristically, I took her up on it. I tend to have a set list of things that I'm reading or about to read, and I very rarely step out of line. It did help that this was on the list, and has been on my radar for some time. It just wasn't really technically next. But nothing had been exciting to me lately, so when she pressed the book into my hands, it seemed like fate and I took it home that night.

It took me considerably longer than an afternoon, but I don't blame the book. Life and things like work and sleep and food (and okay, trying to get to the end of freaking Super Paper Mario) get in the way of reading, especially right now. But while I didn't finish it in an afternoon, I understand her enthusiasm for this book. It's a genuinely lovely read, one that let me get a little choked up and smile. And when I did close it for the final time, I felt completely satisfied, as after a really excellent meal where I probably ate a bit too much and a bit too rich, but it was worth it.

Lillian is a chef with her own restaurant, and on Monday nights she teaches cooking classes to a lucky few who come to her School of Essential Ingredients. We progress chronologically through a single session, each chapter following one participant. Each person in the class has their secret pains and joys and challenges, and we learn about these in between delicious descriptions of the foods they're learning to prepare. And by the end of each class, each person has begun their process of healing, or growing, or rediscovering themselves with a little help from really excellent food.

This is a book for foodies. If some of my big coffee table cookbooks are food porn, this book is definitely food erotica. Bauermeister spares no ingredient a loving and leisurely description. Right up front it is clear that food holds a vital place in this story. Scents, textures, and tastes don't just make for a good meal -- they evoke emotions, memories, and ideas in the people experiencing them. While I'm convinced that food, both the eating and the cooking, is therapeutic, that's taken to mystical extent in this novel. In Lillian's kitchen, and finally in the kitchens of her students, food is magic.

It is a story about food, certainly. It's also a story about the parts of ourselves we keep buried, and how underneath exteriors every single person has a complicated story. Some challenges faced by the characters are mundane, some are metaphysical, some are mental, some are medical. It ranges from Antonia, who is trying to design an appropriate kitchen for a client and is stumped, to Tom, who is working through the premature death of his wife. I really like stories like this. There's not so much an overarching plot as an interconnecting series of little plots about where each life starts to intersect.

The writing is usually quite good. While it would take some hella precocious child to actually think this way, I loved the language and image:

In Lillian's mind, her mother was a museum for words; Lillian was an annex, necessary when space became limited in the original building.

It occasionally overreaches, slipping from a magical or dream-like quality into purple prose. I suspect everyone's line is slightly different, and actually, I think my line between the two varies depending on my mood. I suspect that I was feeling pretty tolerant throughout this reading, and could occasionally see things that might have bothered me if I was feeling in a more concise mood. When Bauermeister's language works, it works very well. When it doesn't, it feels obviously contrived and excessively poetic. Some of the structure works and doesn't in the same way. Portions of the epilogue, while I was glad to have it overall, are a case in point. We slipped across the line of "believably happy" to "a little too good to be true."

If you're looking for something with excitement or thrills, this is definitely not it. But as a quiet, contemplative, and really sweet interweaving story, this is a great read. I've decided I need to read some more magic realism foodie books -- I've always wanted to read Chocolat, so keep an eye out for that one coming up, maybe.


Jeanne said...

I love food books (M.F. K. Fisher's The Art of Eating is my all-time favorite), so it sounds like I'd like this one. My only reservation is that I'm trying to eat less and I'm very suggestible--but maybe reading could substitute for actual eating of the dishes described.

Unknown said...

Oh man, I wouldn't count on that! The food just sounds sooooo good. And it's not health food, either. There is butter and cream aplenty.

I'd never heard of the Fisher, so now must go look that up.