The room filled mostly with couples, leaning toward each other across tables, enclosed in their own spheres of candelit intimacy. Fingers reaching toward fingers, or flying through the air, drawing the shape of a story.
Caught in the dense foliage of an intensely busy time recently, The School of Essential Ingredients, a first novel by writer Erica Bauermeister, did something wonderful and unexpected to me. It slowed me down.
Not only that – it cleared the forest. And in the clearing of that forest, I lay down on a pristine stretch of grass by a motionless pond, and I disappeared into another place – the fictional setting (perhaps an Italian village? perhaps a New England town?) of The School of Essential Ingredients, where Bauermeister indeed drew me the shape of an exquisite story.
The very soulful and wise (though not precociously so) Lillian is passionate about food. Running a highly successful restaurant and unable to pass a moment without sinking her hands into dough or chopping through the tang of an onion, she fills her restaurant’s closing night – Monday – with a series of cooking classes that take participants on a journey through the seasons, and into a world of culinary emotion and self-discovery.
Not only does Lillian feel impassioned to emote her love of food, she is clearly enraptured with the totally plausible idea that food can change people’s lives; that it can shift memories and open them like blossoms, that it can unlock eyes and even invoke the spell of love.
Lillian became enamored with cooking at a young age, just after her father left her mother, who subsequently took a dive into the broken-hearted seclusion and emotional shelter of books. Desperate for her mother’s attention and to wake her from her literary cavern, Lillian was inspired by local foodie, Abuelita, to awaken her mother to life once again. By cooking. The moment her mother wakes is utterly beautiful.
In the following years, Lillian’s popular cooking classes are a perfect foil for her desire to help people reconnect with their hearts – and with each other. Bauermeister’s novel showcases eight culinary students of one particular class – and presents them almost as the ingredients of a greater dish, swiping a hungry finger into each character’s life to lead us to this very moment – to the very reason they have started cooking lessons – and how these lessons will affect and change, or not change, their world.
Bauermeister, a teacher of literature and creative writing at the University of Washington, has created a literary feast with her first foray into fiction – clearly influenced by her time living in northern Italy. Her characters are breathtaking in their simplicity and voice; for such a beautifully concise and thin slice of each player’s history, they are all as well-rounded and deep as a balloon filled with Bordeaux red. You want for these characters, which of course, is every reader’s dream.
Along with the exploration of each character comes a delicious dish that the class cooks and enjoys – a dish that in some way ties in with the moment. Sometimes the characters’ stories feel connected and complete. Sometimes the stories seem unfinished. Sometimes they feel promising, sometimes helpless. Sometimes they intermingle with other stories or separate like olive oil on water, but each is like peeking into the intensely personal diary of someone you wish you knew far more deeply.
Whilst Bauermeister’s skill for imagery and original, descriptive writing is remarkable, she does not complicate her story with unnecessarily trite descriptives – like constant, vamped-up and banal detail of how people look or what they are wearing. She allows the reader to invoke such detail and instead spreads her descriptions thickly with how people are feeling, as well as such provocatives as how water drips off a lettuce or how weighty a plump bell pepper feels in the hand. You can feel your teeth sliding through the food that Bauermeister describes in her book. You can smell the juices in a pan. You can hear the fizz from a glass full of bubbles, and your mouth will water as though Pavlov has rang an imaginary bell.
Not overly structured and pedantically plotted, The School of Essential Ingredients is refreshingly written like a slice of real life – a stream of consciousness from a talented, evocative writer, who dips into her very heart to pen this book. Bauermeister is a woman who writes about what she loves, about what she feels, about what she tastes – and it shows.
Happily, the book doesn’t tie up every lose end. It tells a tightly-knit, tapestry slice of each character’s life, then lets the elements of the rest of their story flow free and untouched, like the tassels on a Persian rug. Like much in life, there is a lot we don’t need to know – and Bauermeister gives us just enough to intrigue, then leaves us hanging, wanting more. Like life itself.
I adored this book. There were moments of such literary delight, tears sprang to my eyes without bidding. Her description of the moments before death, for example, are the most poignant I have ever read. Both the simplicity and detail of this work is stunning in its dichotomy, and there is such a natural talent for enrapturing without the bombardment of obviousness and blatancy – something so tiresome in modern day fiction.
You will swoon over Bauermeister’s ability to conjure pure emotion and morph it into language. Indeed, as I write, the author is touring Italy with the translation of this beautiful novel, where it will slip just as easily into the pocket of Italian literature; after all – what translation is truly needed when it comes to love or food?
You don’t need to be a foodie to love the School of Essential Ingredients. The only essential you’ll need is the ability to fall in love.
Tania McCartney is an author, editor, bloggist and a regular contributor to Australian Women Online. For more information about Tania and her books visit her website www.taniamccartney.com