52 in 52: The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister


[This review is based on the paperback edition published by the Berkley Books imprint of Penguin Publishing Group in 2009.]

Here’s the deal:
The School of Essential Ingredients tells the story of Lillian, a restaurant owner who runs a cooking class out of the restaurant’s kitchen on the first Monday of each month, and her students. Claire is a married mother of two who takes the class as a means of finding herself; Carl and Helen, together for fifty years, work to maintain their connection through food; Antonia seeks comfort in a new world after leaving her family in Italy for uncertainty in the States; Tom uses the class as a way of holding on to the memory of his wife, a foodie who succumbed to breast cancer a year earlier; Chloe, who also works as a waitress in the restaurant, finds her independence in heirloom tomatoes; Isabelle is able to hold on to fading memories through the smells and flavors of the kitchen; and Ian hopes that his newfound cooking skills will help him to make a love connection with a classmate. Their paths cross and intertwine as they experiment with seafood and sauces, sweets and pastas, all while telling their individual stories and how they came to find themselves at Lillian’s school.

My thoughts:
Right off the bat, a comment of Lillian’s captured my attention: “No two spices work the same.” That’s true — cayenne pepper brings heat to a dish while chili powder brings smoky depth; parsley is grassy while oregano is more earthy. But, while no two spices work the same, when they come together they enhance each other’s flavors as well as those of the other elements in a dish. People are very much the same as spices; all of us are unique, but beautiful things (or ugly things) can happen when two of us are brought together. This is exactly what happens in the book. To give you an example, Carl and Helen complement each other like cinnamon and sugar, but their marriage gets thrown for a loop when black pepper enters the mix in the form of an affair. While they manage to survive the affair, there’s always a tiny speck of black pepper buried in their sweetness…and the affair remains a permanent piece of their past.

Erica Bauermeister’s writing is impeccable; there’s no other way to put it. Her attention to detail, especially when describing the food being prepared, is linguistic artistry at its very best. Read this and tell me you can’t practically taste Ian’s tiramisu:

…The savoiardi were firm, delightfully crisp — if these were ladies, Ian thought with amusement, they were demanding respect. Ian laid them out, one after another, in a row along the bottom of a glass bowl and dipped a brush into the espresso and rum and Grand Marnier. He ran the tip of the brush smoothly along the top of the cookies, each stroke a bit longer than the last, and watched as the liquid sank deeply into their surface, like rain into desert sand.
When the cookies were dense with liquid, Ian gently, carefully spooned a layer of the creamy egg-white-mascarpone across them. When they were covered, he took a sharp knife and ran it along the edge of a bar of bittersweet chocolate, hard and dense, falling in a dark, velvety dust across the creamy white surface, then the milk chocolate, curling off like wood shavings. Then he repeated the whole process again and again until the bowl was almost full, a tower of cake and cream and chocolate. Lincoln logs all grown up, Ian thought, then spread an almost impossibly soft layer of white chocolate and whipping cream across the top.
Ian slid his finger along the edge of the tiramisu, bringing it to his mouth. The texture was warm, creamy and soft, like lips parting beneath his own, the taste utterly lacking in precision, luxurious and urgent, mysterious and comforting.

And now I’m craving tiramisu!

I found myself continually going back and rereading all of the beautiful descriptions, not only of food but also of situations and people. The School of Essential Ingredients is both a culinary and literary feast, and I loved every moment of it. I only wish the book would have been longer! I wanted to know more about each character and the cooking adventures they shared, and I actually felt sad when the story ended!

So would I recommend this book?
I loved this book so much that I’m planning to read its sequel, The Lost Art of Mixing, for next week’s review! If you love working in the kitchen, watching cooking shows, or eating really delicious food (and, let’s face it, who doesn’t?), this is a great book for you to read!

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