March 20, 2009

The School of Essential Ingredients

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
Fiction - Culinary
2009 J. P. Putnam's Sons
Finished on 3/14/09
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)

Product Description:

Once a month on Monday night, 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. One by one they are transformed by the aromas, flavors, and textures of what they create, including a white-on-white cake that prompts wistful reflections on the sweet fragility of love, and a garlic and red sauce that seems to spark one romance but end another. Over time, the paths of the students mingle and intertwine, and the essence of Lillian's cooking expands beyond the restaurant and into the secret corners of their lives, with results that are often unexpected, and always delicious.

Anyone who knows me well or has been following my blog knows how much I love to cook and try new recipes. Well, this was certainly my kind of book! I loved the mouthwatering descriptions of the various dishes the students learned to create in their eight months at The School of Essential Ingredients. The author does a marvelous job weaving each character’s background history into the monthly classes, revealing their hopes and dreams, as well as the pain and sorrow in their private lives. I fell in love with each and every character and as I turned the final page, it was with great sadness, as I knew I would soon find myself missing the characters and Lillian's restaurant.

The cooking class was held in a restaurant named Lillian's, on the main street of town, almost hidden by a front garden dense with ancient cherry trees, roses, and the waving spikes and soft mounds of green herbs. Set between the straight lines of a bank and the local movie theater, the restaurant was oddly incongruous, a moment of lush colors and gently moving curves, like an affair in the midst of an otherwise orderly life. Passersby often reached out to run their hands along the tops of the lavender bushes that stretched luxuriantly above the cast-iron fence, the soft, dusty scent remaining on their fingers for hours after.

Those who entered the gate and followed the winding brick path through the garden discovered an Arts and Crafts house whose front rooms had been converted into a dining area. There were no more than ten tables in all, each table's personality defined by nearby architectural elements, one nestled into a bay window, another engaged in companionable conversation with a built-in bookshelf. Some tables had views of the garden, while others, hidden like secrets in the darker, protected corners of the room, held their patrons' attention within the edges of their tabletops.

Doesn't this sound lovely? Oh, how I'd love to take a cooking class in a restaurant such as this, especially one taught by such a down-to-earth person as Lillian.

I first discovered The School of Essential Ingredients when it arrived in the bookstore. The beautiful cover art, graced with a lovely blurb by another favorite author, caught my attention:

A delicate, meltingly lovely hymn to food and friendship. Lillian's kitchen is a place where the world works the way it should. You'll want to tuck yourself into one warm corner of it and stay all day. (Marisa de los Santos, author of Love Walked In)

Reading those words, I knew this was a book I had to buy. But as luck would have it, I won an autographed copy after entering a contest over on Lisa's blog. The inscription in my copy reads, "For Lesley, who loves books and food... Erica Bauermeister"

I found myself wishing Erica had included recipes for all the wonderful dishes described within this gem of a book. I was practically drooling on the pages as the students learned how to bake crab in a lemony-wine sauce (with garlic and butter, of course). The Thanksgiving meal is one I'd love to try my hand at! Imagine how delicious a meal such as this would taste:

Pumpkin ravioli
Stuffed turkey breast with rosemary, cranberries, and pancetta
Polenta with Gorgonzola
Green beans with lemon and pine nuts
Espresso with chocolate biscotti

Doesn't that sound like a refreshing alternative to the traditional meal, heavy with mashed potatoes, stuffing, rolls and gravy? And who doesn't love cheese? After reading the description of a cheese fondue dinner, I was ready to run down to the corner market to buy a block of Gruyere and Emmenthaler and a huge loaf of crusty artisan bread. Mmmmmmmmm. As you can imagine, this is not a book to read when you’re hungry and dinner is several hours away.

On owning a restaurant:

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.

On chocolate:

The hard, round cake of chocolate was wrapped in yellow plastic with red stripes, shiny and dark when she opened it. The chocolate made a rough sound as it brushed across the fine section of the grater, falling in soft clouds onto the counter, releasing a scent of dusty back rooms filled with bittersweet chocolate and old love letters, the bottom drawers of antique desks and the last leaves of autumn, almonds and cinnamon and sugar.

On weather in the Northwest:

Helen and Carl walked up the main street of town to the cooking class. It was a clear, cold evening in early February, the end of a miraculously blue day blown in from the north like a celebration. People in the Northwest tended to greet such weather with a child's sense of joy, strangers exchanged grins, houses were suddenly cleaner, and neighbors could be found in their yards in shirtsleeves, regardless of the temperature, indulging a sudden desire to dig in rich, dark dirt.

On love:

More than anyone he knew, Antonia carried these things with her, in the million sweet and careful rituals that still made up her life, no matter what country she was in. He saw it in the way she cut bread, or drank wine[...] Antonia made celebrations of things he had always dismissed as moments to be rushed through on the way to something more important. Being around her, he found even everyday experiences were deeper, nuanced, satisfaction and awareness slipped in between the layers of life like love notes hidden in the pages of a textbook.

The School of Essential Ingredients is one of those books that could have easily been consumed over the course of a weekend. Well aware that this is a debut novel (with no backlist to satisfy me until Bauermeister's next release), I chose to savor it as slowly as possible. And, it's definitely going on my keeper shelf for future re-reads. Fans of Marisa de los Santos, Joanne Harris, Elin Hilderbrand, and Elizabeth Berg will not be disappointed. I know I wasn't!

For those of you in the Seattle area, you're in luck! Erica has three events lined up and if I lived within driving distance, I'd plan to attend the April 28th event. In addition to hearing Erica speak, I'd also have a chance to hear Shauna Ahern (of Gluten-Free Girl)! Here are the dates and times:

Ballard Library
Monday, April 20th
6:30 pm
5614 22nd Ave. NW,
Seattle, WA 98107


Cooks and Books
Tuesday, April 28th
6:00 pm
"What We Talk About When We Talk About Food"
with Erica Bauermeister, Kathleen Flinn, Shauna Ahern,
Mathew Amster-Burton and Molly Wizenberg
Tom Douglas Palace Ballroom
appetizers and special cocktail of the night
Tickets: $25
reservations: 206-632-2419

Santoro's Books
Friday, May 8th
7:00 pm
(in conjunction with Phinney Ridge Art Walk)
7405 Greenwood Ave
Seattle, WA 98013

Be sure to check out Lisa's review here.


  1. (Les, this is just in brackets but ... I didn't know you were from Valleyview, Alberta! We have good friends who are from there (they had a beautiful outdoor wedding one Valleyview summer) whom we visit now every time we drive through Peace River .... Do you know the Steffenson's?)

  2. This one looks really good. It'd probably make me hungry while reading it!LOL I'm gonna have to put it on my TBR list! Thanks for a great review!

  3. I've read several glowing reviews of this lately...but now it's going on my list. Lucky you to win an autographed copy!

  4. What an excellent review!! I adored this book too and can't say enough good things about it. I'm a little green with envy because of your personal autographed copy!!!

  5. Another successful read for Les! :) I'm looking forward to this one - have only heard and read good things about it.

    I'm about in the middle of The Help and am thoroughly enjoying it. How 'bout you? AND, I'm so curious about your thoughts regarding Still Alice. Hurry and post! :)

  6. What a fabulous review! Like you I love anything foody and I loved this book. I too just wanted to savour it. I found myself rereading passages over and over just because they were so beautiful. This book I consider a comfort read and that's what will draw me back to it over and over.

  7. Thank you so much, Les, for bringing this book to my attention. I haven't been this excited about a book in a long time! It's just what I've been looking for!

  8. Anonymous2:17 PM

    I'm eagerly waiting for this one. It's been on my request list for sooo long and I'm very slowly making my way to the top of the list. I'm hopeful that I'll have it in my hands in the next month or two.

  9. This is definitely on my 2009 Favorite Books list. I really liked it. Nice review!

  10. Anonymous7:12 PM

    I've got this one here and will get to it soon. Lesa Holstine had recommended it as well. A 5/5 from you is high praise indeed!

  11. I think I knew you'd love this! I'd love to take a class with Lillian too, and you!

  12. Yes! I agree...she definitely should have included the recipes...what a delicious novel!

  13. Colleen - I don't remember where or when I mentioned Valleyview, but yes, I lived there as a little girl. I don't know you friends, as we lived there from 1965 to 1966! And I was only 3 or 4. :)

    Shannon - I thought it was great, and yes, it made me hungry! :) Glad you enjoyed the review. Thanks for your comment.

    JoAnn - You're in for a treat!

    Staci - Thank you so much! I appreciate your nice comment so much.

    Joy - Yes! I've had such an amazing year of reading. I can't remember the last time I had so many winners.

    I'm almost finished with The Help and am loving it! Another winner!

    Dar - Thank you for such a nice comment. This is certainly a book to savor and read more than once. Definitely going on my keeper shelf! And, yes, it's one I'd consider a "comfort read."

    Alison - You're welcome! I hope you love it as much as I did. And thank you for visiting my blog.

    Sassymonkey - It's always so nice to see your name in the comments! I hope you get a copy of this book very soon. I think it'd make a wonderful summer read.

    Mary - Thank you. And I'll bet you're like me and wish she'd quickly write another book, perhaps even a sequel.

    Kay - This is such a lovely book. I just know you'll enjoy it!

    BTW, I am lovin' The Help. What a fabulous novel!!!

    Tara - Awww, you're so sweet.

    Jill - I initially wanted recipes included in the book, but after some thought, I think there are enough details in the book to recreate some of the meals without a recipe. And, that's really her point. To be creative and experiment with food. I need to learn to do more of that. I like to follow a recipe, at least the first time I make it, but then I like to tweak it a bit and add or delete ingredients to my liking.

    Not sure if I can kill a crab, though! ;)

  14. I know, this is my kind of book! I love some of the authors you mentioned so I'm sure Erica's book will also be a keeper!

  15. Iliana - I've loaned my copy out and I know my friend will take good care of it and return it without any reminders, but it's one of those books I know I'll read again and I'll be a bit anxious until it makes it way back into my home. Silly aren't I? ;) Enjoy!

  16. I KNEW you'd love it! I'm not sure how I didn't see this post sooner- somehow I missed it- but I'm so glad the book found it's way to you (signed, too- how cool!) and that you enjoyed it. Great review, and thanks for the shout out!

  17. LisaMM - And a big thank you to you for hosting the contest! I was thrilled to win a signed copy and get an opportunity to read this fabulous book.

  18. Fantastic review of this book, Les - like you, I'm a foodie and loved this book for its mouthwatering descriptions (have you read the nonfiction book Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin? I think you'd love her writing!). I would pay top dollar to attend a cooking school like the one in this book!!!

  19. Wendy - Thank you! Glad you enjoyed the review. I'd love to attend a cooking school like the one depicted in this novel, too. Or maybe one in Italy. :)

    I have a copy of Home Cooking in my stacks and keep meaning to read it. I know Marcia and Nan love Colwin's books, so I hope to get to it soon. I'm currently reading The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry and I think it's wonderful! I wish I could spend the entire day reading, but I have far too much to do. Maybe tomorrow. :)


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