Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Review: The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

"The first question people always ask me is what are the essential ingredients." Lillian paused and smiled. "I might as well tell you, there isn't a list and I've never had one. Nor do I hand out recipes. All I can say is that you will learn what you need to."

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.
Well. Now I'm hungry. I want...tiramisu and cake and fondue and melon with proscuitto and everything else described in this lovely book except for the pasta with red sauce. I had a very bad experience with that a long time ago and I still can't eat it but if anything would be able to convince me to get over that it would be this book.

Lillian is a witch. A food witch to be precise. The way Lillian uses food to teach life lessons is amazing. Her story is the first one to be told in this book and you get to see how she learned to learn and wield it as a witch would magic. There are nine stories in Essential Ingredients, some more powerful than others. Tom's affected me the most. His is about his wife and her relationship with food. From page 108:

Charlie had loved garlic; she had told Tom that if he loved her, he'd better love the way her fingers smelled after a day in the kitchen, the scent soaked deep into her skin like wine into a tablecloth. She refused the aid of all kitchen gadgets, crushing the fat, firm cloves under her strong thumb, pulling off the papery outer sheets and digging her nail into the base of the clove to remove the hardened end. She would have chopped with her fingers, too, if she could have, burrowing into the smell of it. When she was done, she would trace lines with her fingertips between her breasts, along the base of her skull and up behind her ears.
    "Trails for you to follow," she would say to Tom with a wink.

Good stuff, no? Who doesn't like a woman who smells like garlic in places where garlic wouldn't normally touch? *grin* This book flowed like music, something slow and sultry that also had peaks and valleys in the feel of it. This is Bauermeister's only fiction work in this style thus far and she certainly has her work cut out for her for the next one. Visit her website to see some of the recipes for the food that Lillian teaches them to make. Lillian won't give recipes for her dishes because she doesn't believe in them because she believes that the end result will be far better if it is made by instinct rather than by following a list of instructions. I would be pulling my hair out if I was faced with that challenge - I need a recipe :)

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