Once a month, eight students gather in Lillian's restaurant for a cooking class. Among them is Claire, a young woman coming to terms with her new identity as a mother; Tom, a lawyer whose life has been overturned by loss; Antonia, an Italian kitchen designer adapting to life in America; and Carl and Helen, a long-married couple whose union contains surprises the rest of the class would never suspect...
The students have come to learn the art behind Lillian's soulful dishes, but it soon becomes clear that each seeks a recipe for something beyond the kitchen. And soon they are transformed by the aromas, flavors, and textures of what they create.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
1. Women cooks—Fiction. 2. Cooking schools—Fiction.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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For Heidi, Karin, and Dad
Lillian loved best the moment before she turned on the Lights. She would stand in the restaurant kitchen doorway, rain-soaked air behind her, and let the smells come to her—ripe sourdough yeast, sweet-dirt coffee, and garlic, mellowing as it lingered. Under them, more elusive, stirred the faint essence of fresh meat, raw tomatoes, cantaloupe, water on lettuce. Lillian breathed in, feeling the smells move about and through her, even as she searched out those that might suggest a rotting orange at the bottom of a pile, or whether the new assistant chef was still double-dosing the curry dishes. She was. The girl was a daughter of a friend and good enough with knives, but some days, Lillian thought with a sigh, it was like trying to teach subtlety to a thunderstorm.
But tonight was Monday. No assistant chefs, no customers looking for solace or celebration. Tonight was Monday, cooking-class night.
After seven years of teaching, Lillian knew how her students would arrive on the first night of class—walking through the kitchen door alone or in ad hoc groups of two or three that had met up on the walkway to the mostly darkened restaurant, holding the low, nervous conversations of strangers who will soon touch one another’s food. Once inside, some would clump together, making those first motions toward connection, while others would roam the kitchen, fingers stroking brass pots or picking up a glowing red pepper, like small children drawn to the low-hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree.
Lillian loved to watch her students at this moment—they were elements that would become more complex and intriguing as they mixed with one another, but at the beginning, placed in relief by their unfamiliar surroundings, their essence was clear. A young man reaching out to touch the shoulder of the still younger woman next to him—“What’s your name?”—as her hand dropped to the stainless-steel counter and traced its smooth surface. Another woman standing alone, her mind still lingering with—a child? a lover? Every once in a while there was a couple, in love or ruins.
Excerpted from "The School of Essential Ingredients"
Copyright © 2010 Erica Bauermeister.
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Reading Group Guide
Reminiscent of Chocolat and Like Water for Chocolate, a gorgeously written novel about life, love, and the magic of food.
The School of Essential Ingredients follows the lives of eight students who gather in Lillian’s Restaurant every Monday night for cooking class. It soon becomes clear, however, that each one seeks a recipe for something beyond the kitchen. Students include Claire, a young mother struggling with the demands of her family; Antonia, an Italian kitchen designer learning to adapt to life in America; and Tom, a widower mourning the loss of his wife to breast cancer. Chef Lillian, a woman whose connection with food is both soulful and exacting, helps them to create dishes whose flavor and techniques expand beyond the restaurant and into the secret corners of her students’ lives. One by one the students are transformed by the aromas, flavors, and textures of Lillian’s food, including a white-on-white cake that prompts wistful reflections on the sweet fragility of love and a peppery heirloom tomato sauce that seems to spark one romance but end another. Brought together by the power of food and companionship, the lives of the characters mingle and intertwine, united by the revealing nature of what can be created in the kitchen.
ABOUT ERICA BAUERMESITER
Erica Bauermeister’s love of slow food and slow life was cemented by her two years living in northern Italy with her husband and children. She has taught literature and creative writing at the University of Washington and currently lives in Seattle with her family.The School of Essential Ingredients is her first novel.
A CONVERSATION WITH ERICA BAUERMESITER
Q. What led you to write this book?
In 1999, my family had just returned to Seattle after spending two years in northern Italy. I found that I missed the food and being around people who celebrated even the most simple meals. So, I took a cooking class. The first night, we killed crabs. I’m the kind of person who takes spiders outside when I find them in my house and it was a deeply unsettling experience. I had an image of a young mother, Claire, and I began wondering what effect it might have on her to kill something. In the end, her story wasn’t at all what I expected. And then I started thinking about all the different characters you could have in a class, and started wondering which foods would affect each one – revive a memory, create an epiphany, change the direction of a life – and that’s where the book came from.
Q. How are food and cooking connected to the way we live our whole lives, not just the time we spend in the kitchen or at the table?
The act of cooking provides us with an opportunity to slow down, to focus on our senses rather than the speed of our world. I think we all want that, miss that, in our everyday lives. The people I know who pay attention to those things simply seem to be happier and more fulfilled, in the kitchen and out of it.
My children were incredibly lucky, in that they were 7 and 10 when we moved to Italy and they learned that lesson early. They are both dedicated foodies and truly creative cooks. My son just went to college and he inherited my college blender. The funny thing is, he took it because he wanted to be able to make pesto – a far cry from the margaritas and protein shakes it made in the early 1980s.
Q. What are some of your favorite dishes to make and to eat?
I have been a cookie-maker since I was seven years old, and I love what the smell of baking cookies does to a household. I am also a big fan of any dish that requires chopping or stirring or simmering, particularly if my day has been frantic and I want it all to slow down. Making risotto is one of the most comforting activities I can imagine, just standing at the stove, adding chicken broth a bit at a time, while people sit around the kitchen table and talk.
Q. If you were to make a romantic meal for a cold winter night, what would it be?
My favorite dish is a ragu sauce with Italian sausage and hamburger, crushed tomatoes, onions, carrots, red pepper flakes and white wine. Simple – and the white wine is a surprise every time. If you are cooking it for someone before they arrive, the smell that greets him or her when you open the door is amazing, so full of love. And if you are making it with someone, it can be all about trading tasks and doing the whole kitchen ballet, which can be utterly sensual.
But actually, the most romantic dinner I ever had was in college, when my not-yet-husband took me to Griffith Park in Los Angeles and made fondue over a pot of sterno (and yes, that part of the book is a wink in his direction).
Q. Do you believe in recipes, or is it enough just to know food and fundamental techniques?
I think cooking is a language, and like all languages, it’s easiest to learn early, although I am proof that that it is possible to learn later in life. The women I met in Italy all had learned cooking as children from their mothers. They approached ingredients as parts of a conversation; they knew how each ingredient talked to the others and they didn’t want a recipe to tell them how much of one thing or another to add. They simply listened to the food. And while I think that recipes can be very helpful – particularly in baking, where amounts need to be fairly specific – I think that if we pay too much attention to recipes we can lose track of our relationship with the ingredients.
If I am making a dish I have no experience with, I love to go on the internet and find six different recipes for it. I particularly like Epicurious.com, where people comment on how they have altered the recipes. I take note of the ingredients, think about which ones sound intriguing, what I might add or subtract, and then I play.
Q. There’s been a movement in recent years toward using local and organic food. Where do you shop for this kind of food near your home in Seattle? Where should people look for the best and least expensive local and organic produce in their own areas?
I think there is nothing more inspiring for a cook than a farmer’s market, and we’re lucky in Seattle to have many of them. I love walking along the stalls at the end of summer and stopping to eat a sample slice of peach that just stops you with its sweetness, makes you wonder why all life can’t be that astonishingly full. I am also an advocate of the organic-food companies and the
local farms that will deliver a box of produce to you on a weekly basis. You never quite know what you are going to get, only that it is going to be fresh and organic – which I think brings out a lot of creativity in cooks.
Q. You had two good friends who died of cancer as you wrote this book. Also, your father died of a neurological disease. How did these experiences influence your story?
In 2006, two dear friends of mine where dying, and my father was failing from a disease related to Parkinson’s. There is a circle that surrounds people who are dying, and to be inside that circle is a beautiful and horrible honor – as the saying goes, there is no time for superficiality. My friend Karin asked to read something I had written and I gave her a manuscript for another project I was working on. One day we went out to lunch after her treatment and she looked at me, all beautiful and turbaned and said, “I think you should write something more from your heart.”
After years of illness, within the space of four months, Karin, Heidi, and my father all died.
I turned to the cooking stories, which I had worked on for years but had never finished a single one, and I wrote. I finished Tom’s story first. Neither Karin nor Heidi are Charlie, Tom’s wife in the book who dies of cancer. I had written most of Tom’s story years before either Heidi or Karin were diagnosed, an irony that doesn’t escape me. But the end of Tom’s story became a place to put the pain of losing them. And being able to finish that story was a gift – because after I knew I could finish one story, the rest fell into place. So in many ways, this is Karin and Heidi’s book.
It is also my father’s book. I grew up with a brilliant man, an engineer and musician who loved me but rarely knew how to show it. The irony of my father’s illness was that it included a dementia that made him, little by little, less able to use his astonishing mind and he began to live more from his heart. I learned a lot about dignity and empathy and forgiveness being with my father as he slid into death, and in the process it profoundly changed the book I was writing.
Q. This is your first novel, although you’ve written other books about literature. How was the process of writing fiction different for you?
I remember once speaking with an author who had made a comment about her characters in her presentation – how they talked to her and told her what to do, etc. I was skeptical, and said so. I declared that no characters had ever talked to me. She just looked at me and smiled this small smile and said “maybe you aren’t listening.”
So I decided to listen. Carl was the first character who appeared in my imagination, a man whose wife has had an affair, but who doesn’t want to end his marriage. He was such a wonderful man and I wanted to do him justice; I wanted people to realize that his decision to stay in his marriage was something complicated and loving, rather than a lack of will. It wasn't until six months later that I had a dream about his wife, and I realized that she had actually been planning on leaving him when she sat down at that kitchen table, but had changed her mind at
the last moment – and that that decision, too, was complicated and loving, and gave their story a complexity I didn't know it had until then.
Writing Helen’s story made me realize how powerful the concept of interconnected stories can be, allowing the reader to delve deeply into each character, and to be, in the end, the only person who truly knows all the connections between them.
Q. Are you surprised that your first novel has become a major title for a big publisher? How did you go about getting it published?
Absolutely. Stunned. But one of the things I have learned is that as a writer you need to say “yes” to every experience you can. In my case, I was very lucky to say yes to a spur-of-the-moment dinner invitation, where I met MJ Rose, an amazingly generous author, who introduced me to Writer’s House and my agent, Amy Berkower, who I swear can fly.
Q. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What experiences moved you in that direction?
I have always wanted to write, but I realized what I wanted to write when I read Tillie Olsen's “I Stand Here Ironing” in college (and I doubt very much I am alone in that experience). I wanted to write books that took what many considered to be unimportant bits of life and reminded people of their beauty – but the only other thing I knew for certain back in college was that I wasn’t grown up enough yet to do that.
So I got a PhD in literature and wrote 500 Great Books by Women and Let's Hear it for the Girls. In the process I read, literally, thousands of books, good and bad, which is probably one of the best educations a writer can have. I still wrote, but thankfully, that material wasn't published. I taught. I had children.
It’s been thirty years since I first read Tillie Olsen. I still believe, even more so now, that paying attention to the small, unimportant bits of life is one of the most important things human beings can do. And I believe that literature that takes those things and looks at them with compassion has the ability to feed people’s souls – and that that is a goal worth having.
Q. How did being a mother affect your development as a writer?
Having children probably had the most dramatic effect upon how I write of anything in my life. As the care-taker of children, my life was one of constant interruption – not the optimal environment for writing novels with traditional, sequential story-lines. So I worked on other projects and learned to multi-task, and when the children's demands were too many, we created something called the “mental hopper.” This is where all the suggestions went – “can we have ice cream tonight?” “can we go to Canada this summer?” “can I have sex when I am 13?” The mental hopper was where things got sorted out, when I had time to think about them. What's interesting about the mental hopper is that when something goes in there, I can usually figure out a way to make it happen (except sex at 13).
The mental hopper became a way of thinking and deeply affected how I write now. All the characters, all those first details and amorphous ideas for a story, the voices of the characters, the fact that one of them loves garlic and another one flips through the pages of used books looking for clues to the past owner’s life, all those ideas go in the mental hopper and slowly but surely they form connections with each other. Stories start to take shape. It's a very organic process, and it suits me. So when people say being a mother is death for writers, I disagree. Yes, in a logistical sense, children can make writing difficult, because of the time they demand. In fact, I don't think it is at all coincidental that my first fiction book will be published after both my children are in college. But I think differently, I create the way I do, because I have had children.
Q. What do you hope readers take away from THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS?
I always love it when a reader says “Now I’m going to go home and cook my wife a real dinner” and you just know what that dinner will turn into. But perhaps my favorite response was from an American reader living in a small town in Mexico. She volunteers in a shelter for street kids, cooking them lunch once a week. She said that even though the kids were obviously hungry, they wouldn’t always eat what she prepared for them, especially if it wasn’t what they knew. She wrote that after she read Isabelle’s story in the novel, she cooked a real Mexican pork stew and that the kids ate every bite and she got 83 hugs.
In the end, what I hope people take away from my book is that cooking can be a sensual experience that slows down time, but that cooking is also about thinking about other people. When we really cook for other people, we are seeing them – who they are, what will make them happy, excite or comfort them. And when we eat something that has been prepared, beautifully and especially for us, we feel loved, taken care of, seen.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was wonderful. Makes you want to take the class or start one of your own. My hope is that she will write another book with a new class. Her descriptions of aromas and tastes are phenomenal. Make your mouth water and the way she brings it to a conclusion in such a short time is a wonder. Enjoy the book then go cook up a great, slow meal.
The endearing characters meet in cooking class where meals are not only prepared but are a healing mechanism to heal the inner spirit. Appetites are connected to the eight students aspirations and soothe the heart and soul. The chapters are told from each student's perspectve in flashback. This is a beautiful in-depth character study that will warm your heart! Wonderful!
I loved this book! It was a truly beautiful story. Even though each character only got a chapter, I felt like I knew and understood each one. It was very easy to see how each of their stories would connect them in the end. Lillian is the only character that I wish was developed a little more. She has such a powerful impact on each of the students in her class, I wish I connected a little more with her background. Each time I thought a character was a favorite, I started a new chapter. The book and each individual story was resolved perfectly. The imagery was amazing. I could easily see everyone and everything in the kitchen and the restaurant and I could smell and taste everything they were cooking. I have been inspired to go to cooking school. The book was DELICIOUS! I also think it would make an incredible series. Each book could have a new group of students (characters) with their own stories.
This beautifully written novel really makes you more aware of the little miracles in life and appreciate them in a whole new way. I am a sucker for anything with magical realism and this book is no different. The sensual and joyful celebration of food carries over to other aspects of life easily. It stands out, ezpecially during this time in our lives where the simple things mean the most to us.
I enjoyed this story a lot, even though it was a bit predictable at times. The stories describing the individual characters seemed genuine and made the characters interesting. I would have wanted more details on their lives. The main tie, the cooking school through the seasons, is original and tight. It is a feel-good story with a resounding note of realism. I look forward to this author's next book.
This wasn't a book I would normally read, but I bought it for book club at my local BNN, and I completely LOVED it! The story, the characters, the everything was so wonderful, just like a great meal. I highly recommend this book for anyone, whether you like to cook or not. And if you don't like to cook...you will!
I liked this book. It was a pleasant, entertaining, and easy read. The end gave me the impression that there may be more to come. I hope so. The ingenuity in the dishes they prepared in class were inspiring to my own culinary creations.
This is a beautiful, warm-hearted book that is perfect for getting through to dark days of winter! Its the story of a Monday night cooking class presided over by Lillian the chef of a romantic little restaurant. Lillian knows that each of her students come for a different reason. Some come for confidence, some for adventure, and some for comfort, but each will leave with wisdom and passion they never expected to find.
Erica Bauermeister writes about food with impressive detail and feeling. This is a book that will leave you hungry for lovingly prepared, delicious food! Her writing style reminds me of Maeve Binchy. She weaves together the stories of fascinating, sympathetic characters. You will fall in love with them! Like a big bowl of homemade chicken noodle soup on a cold January night this book will leaave you warm and satisfied. I only hope that Erica is hard at work on her next novel!
The School of Essential Ingredients is a warm and compelling read. The students at the cooking school learn much more than how to cook: the teacher uses cooking as a strategy by which to address spiritual issues within her students. Bauermeister¿s eye for vivid detail and engaging voice will make you want to cook, eat, and read her next novel.
It was hard to stop reading, I felt like mine as part of these lives
This school for essential life ingredients is wonderful. I had to read the book very slowly, in order to capture every flavor, just as Erica recommends we savor the smells, tastes, and memories associated with food, cooking, and life itself. I can't wait to read this book again, to dive deeper into the lives of the characters and of course the food! I would love, love, love to see this as a movie.
Loved this book! Fun chick-lit book with a fun backstory. The only problem was there were so many characters to keep straight. Would definitely recommend. as a rainy day pleasure.
Like ingredients in a recipe, Erica Bauermeister blends individual character's lives together to create a wholly satisfying story. Sensually evocative imagery and language make this a warm blanket and tea pot read. The only down side for me was that it was too short. Thankfully there is another in the series! I suggest you curl up, get cozy and enjoy!
Was a really nice read...style like Meave Binchey ...
I just finished reading and I think this is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. I agree with whoever said it could make a wonderful movie (if done right; the casting would be tricky). I don't even cook and would not cook most of these recipes even if I did - I am a vegetarian. Doesn't matter - I loved it anyway.
Amazing...it has been months since I read this and I still cannot quit thinking about it!
After reading the 1st chapter decided to go no further. I've just purchased a book for the donation pile. So sorry too, I had wanted to enjoy this read.
Lovely writing. The story just flowed, characters own personal stories revealed gently and with grace and dignity.
A friend gave me this book and I fell in love with it and have given it to others. In this book, a group of people take a cooking class, and the teacher proves as much counselor as cooking teacher. Descriptions of food are poetic!
Bauermeister is a brilliant author. Her books are stories, wonderful stories that tell about characters that are so real you expect to run into them on the block where you live. Their lives, and feelings all blend into a full course meal created with diverse ingredients of happiness, tears of pain, tears of joy, surprises from characters that grow and mature right in front of your eyes. She is an amazing author and a must read.