Thursday, September 29, 2011

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

Lillian holds cooking lessons at her restaurant.  This book follows one group of students and their adventures into the cooking world and their subsequent memories along with their progressing relationships with each other.  Each chapter follows one student and one ingredient or dish.  The students include; Claire, a young mother of two small children; Carl and Helen, an older couple, very in love and very together; Antonia, a kitchen designer and recent immigrant from Italy; Tom, a recent widower; Chloe, a young woman who can’t seem to find her place in the world; Isabelle, an older woman with beginning dementia; and Ian, a young accountant.

I especially enjoyed the story of Ian and his dealing with a Chinese Restaurant close to where he lives.  The first time he goes there and gives his order.  What shows up at his table is something else entirely. He tells the old Chinese woman who is the waitress.  She goes away without responding.  Not knowing what to do, he eats what he was given and finds a delightful meal.  When the waitress finally returns she asks, “You like?”  After that it becomes the norm.  He orders something from the menu and is brought something else.  Something he probably would not have ordered on his own.  One day, when he is trying to learn to cook rice and not being very successful he goes to the restaurant for advice. 

“Do you know how to cook rice?” Ian blurted out as he was sitting down. 

The waitress stared at him.

“I mean, of course you do; I was just wondered if you could tell me how.”

“Why? You eat rice here.”

“I want to learn how.”

The old woman noted the urgency in his voice; she looked at him more closely, nodded.  “You don’t cook rice, you take care of it, she stated.  “I’ll get your dinner now.” She returned to the kitchen without even the pretense of asking for his order.”

Interestingly, Lillian, the character who brings them all together, we are told very little about. She remains as mysterious as her abilities with food are mystical.

Ms. Bauermeister writing about food is sensual, as is evident in this sentence about making a cake.  “The mixer began its revolutions again as the liquid blended into the sugar-butter, the yolks turning the batter darker again, loose and glistening.”  Or this, about eating crab.  “She took another bite and felt her feet settle into the floor and the rest of her flow into a river of ginger and garlic and lemon and wine.

I dare you read this book and not gain five pounds!

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