Thursday, July 11, 2013

The School of Essential Ingredients - Erica Bauermeister

The School of Essential IngredientsIt's not a secret, to anyone who knows me, that I love food and cooking.  Indeed, I stated in my review of Consider the Fork that I would be perfectly content to be a housewife if it meant that I could stay at home and cook (and, consequently, eat) all day long.  This will, however, probably seem less appealing as my metabolism slows down.  It keeps the pounds off now, but in the future... Oh, boy, I'm going to be fat.

When I started reading this book, I expected a book about cooking and learning to cook.  Not a cookbook; I knew it was a novel, about an ensemble cast with their own backgrounds and wants and needs, but I expected there to be more focus on the actual "learning to cook" process than there actually was.  Bauermeister's cooking pro, Lillian, doesn't believe in recipes due to an aversion to the written word (HOW COULD ANYONE HAVE AN AVERSION TO THE WRITTEN WORD?!?!) so there aren't any recipes included.  Mildly disappointing, but I guess  beyond the point of the book itself.

What the book actually is, is a collection of back stories for people who happen to meet in a cooking class and may or may not become involved in each other's lives.  They were good stories--engaging, well-written, and often poetic; Bauermeister is a very good writer in that respect--but there wasn't a lot of forward motion.  Of course, there didn't really need to be, since it wasn't a plot-centered novel, but...  But, well, of the nine stories (eight students and one teacher), six of them take place entirely in the past.  Lillian, Helen, Carl, Isabelle, Tom, and Claire all have stories that abruptly cease when we reach the present day.  We never learn what Claire does that makes her happy, or why Carl and Helen are taking a cooking class and what they gain from it.  They're just there.  Lillian and Tom have a bit of interaction at the very end, but it's still not really integrated in the sense that the class isn't woven into their lives; it's just the place they met.  As for seemed that her story was centered around the idea of being "edgy," and just came across as kind of random.

On the flip side, Antonia, Ian, and Chloe all have stories with forward motion in them, and those were really more enjoyable to me.  Antonia is from Italy and is adjusting to life in the US while trying to convince a couple that they don't really need an industrial kitchen in their Victorian-era home.  Ian is trying to woo Antonia.  And Chloe is struggling with life after high school and living with a boyfriend who isn't exactly the cream of the crop.  Throughout the story, all of these characters actually grew as people and left the class much more "full" than when they started.

When the writing did focus on the class, however, I loved Lillian's voice in how she treats food.  I'm not sure I actually agree with everything Bauermeister put in her mouth, but I want to agree with it.  On some level, it probably is true that people are shaped by the way they eat, but I'm not sure it's to quite the degree that it's made out to be in the book.  And I'm also not sure that, even though I love cooking, cooking is as magical as it's made out to be in the book.  Restaurants, and more specifically restaurant kitchens, are not places where people have cozy chats.  They are hot, sweaty places of work, and while there is certainly something magical about raw ingredients turning into fully-prepared dishes, there is rarely something magical about the attitude that goes into them.

Still, this was a highly enjoyable read with some really great writing and very human characters, all of them with their own quirks and flaws.  While there wasn't as much "motion" as I would have liked, this was a great book to curl up with on a rainy evening and thoroughly devour.  (Devour.  Get it?  Because food.)

3.5 out of 5 stars.

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