Ah, La Dolce Vita. The sweet life of a successful author. Erica Bauermeister’s first fiction novel, The School of Essential Ingredients, may still be fresh on the shelves but this tantalising novel has already been translated into Italian, under the title La Scuola degli Ingredienti Segreti. What a glorious excuse to jet off to Northern Italy, where Bauermeister, a Seattle native, revelled in a divine Italian summer.
Returning to Italy was not difficult for the author, having fallen in love with the country after living in Bergamo with her family in 1997. Bauermeister told Australian Women Online, “We lived for two years in Citta Alta. “It’s the old upper town, which is lovely – surrounded by tall stone walls and interwoven with narrow cobblestone streets and tiny shops. Italy is an easy country to love, and I find that feeling deepens each time I return.”
Bauermeister first experienced Italy with a friend in 1996. Having never been to Europe, she says she had a fair amount of trepidation.
“Of course, as soon as I landed in Rome, I fell into the feeling of the country,” she said. “And by the time my friend and I reached Cinque Terre – an exquisite series of small fishing villages connected only by train and a walking path – I was besotted.”
Besotted enough to call her husband in then United States after a particularly good pesto lasagne in Vernazza, egged on with the Dutch courage of “far too much white wine”.
“My husband is far more adventurous than I am,” recalls Bauermeister. “I said ‘Oh, we should move to Italy!’ and he leapt at the suggestion. Within six months he had arranged with his company for us to be relocated to Bergamo.”
A deep love for Italy and its food is subsequently clear in The School of Essential Ingredients, which, according to the author, is set in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
“It’s an area I love for its cool green and the way the rain, the water, the mountains allow you the space and quiet for reflection. The novel is not in Seattle, per se, but in a fictional, smaller place that takes on many of Seattle’s best qualities.”
The School of Essential Ingredients explores the lives of eight central characters via a series of appetizing cooking classes run by the very gastronomical Lillian – who the author insists is purely fictional. One can’t help, nonetheless, to imagine even a small part of the author and her Italian experience in her culinary heroine – an Italian experience that changed the author’s life.
“Moving to Italy was a revelation in terms of what I learned about food but also what I learned about family,” said Bauermeister. “I learned to cook without recipes, to enjoy a long, slow lunch on a Sunday afternoon, to relish the sight of my family at the dinner table each night.”
Bauermeister says she has always enjoyed food, but the moment she fell in love with food happened the family’s first week in Italy, when a friend took the family to a small, outdoor restaurant in the country for Sunday lunch.
“At one point during the meal, we were served a simple salad – just lettuce and tomato, olive oil and vinegar. I was busy trying to follow a conversation in two languages and I took a bite and then stopped. The food was so fresh, so alive. It felt as if someone had taken the plastic off my food. And I thought then that food could be, should be, so much more in most people’s lives than it typically is.”
Having taught literature and creative writing at the University of Washington, Bauermeister specialised in 19th Century female American fiction writers. Upon finishing graduate school, she felt driven to bring lesser–known female authors into the academic curriculum and the public eye, and subsequently penned two non-fiction books – 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader’s Guide and Let’s Hear It For the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14, co-authored with Holly Smith. The author says this process was an education in itself, and was deeply rewarding.
It was, however, the author’s “best dream” to write a novel.
“Ever since I read Tillie Olsen’s I Stand Here Ironing in college, I knew what kind of novel I wanted to write,” Bauermeister told AWO. “One that took the small and ‘unimportant’ things in life and made them beautiful. Gaining enough life experience to be able to truly see the depth and complexity of those small moments in life, took a little more time.”
Her direct inspiration for The School of Essential Ingredientssurfaced when the family returned from Italy to the United States in 1999. Realising she greatly missed Italian food and being around people who celebrated the preparation and sharing of even the simplest of meals, Bauermeister knew what she had to do. She took a cooking class.
“The first night we killed crabs by ripping their shells off and cutting them in half; it was a very visceral experience and it stunned me deeply.”
During these classes, Bauermeister found herself looking around at the other students and thinking how interesting it would be to create a fictional cooking class – to explore the lives of a group of individuals, to figure out which foods would affect each character differently but with similar intensity.
“I wondered how these characters would come together, form relationships, change through the course of the class. The idea grew in my imagination over the years and finally became The School of Essential Ingredients.”
When asked if any of her beautifully scripted characters were sliced from real life friends or acquaintances, Bauermeister again insists they were fully borne of her imagination.
“The reality and the miracle for me, is that none of the characters are anyone I have known – something which surprises me because I’ve never had a fictional character arrive in my head. I was astonished and supremely grateful when Carl, who was the first, showed up and started talking to me.”
Bauermeister’s characters then began to unfold. A few of the characters she knew almost immediately; others arrived along the way. The order of the characters also changed as the author started to see their stories as parts of a greater whole.
“The other thing I found interesting about the [characterisation] process was that I would often realise part-way through a story that I was writing to figure out something – sometimes it was simply a desire to understand how someone else thought, but other times it was to resolve issues that were so deep within me, I didn’t even know they were there.”
Bauermeister has a remarkable talent for evocative and descriptive writing – almost a stream-of-consciousness style that truly brings the aromas and flavours of her work alive. This is testament to the enormous success of her book, which was nominated in the States as an Indie Next Pick for February 2009. Indeed, the author says her favourite moment in writing is when a sentence seemingly arrives from another place, when it just “comes out of my fingers, something that feels true or beautiful, and I sit back and wonder where it came from,” says the author.
Thankfully, for those of us who have become dedicated fans of Bauermeister’s work, she is hard at work on a second novel, and tells me she feels utterly spoiled that for the first time in her life, writing is her full time job.
“My second novel will feature a new cast of characters and, while not focused primarily on food, will certainly include it. That’s the lovely thing about food – even fictional characters get to eat!” she laughs.
In the meantime, Bauermeister can look forward to enjoying the barrage of letters she receives from people who tell her The School of Essential Ingredients caused them to slow down, to pay attention to their senses, their lives, the people around them.
“I love it when people who don’t normally cook tell me they would like to try, and when people say they are thinking about the world in more poetic ways after reading the book.”
Whilst penning her next novel, the author’s love of food and strong desire to cook will clearly continue unabated – having now become an adopted way of life for her family.
“I love things that simmer and fill the house with smells – ragu sauce, risotto,” she says when asked what she loves to cook most. “I also love things that are simple – a wonderful piece of filet mignon with a simple green salad. And anything with chocolate…”
Looks like it will be La Dolce Vita for Erica Bauermeister for a long time to come.
The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister is published by Harper Collins and is available now for AU$29.99 RRP. Read Australian Women Online’s book review of The School of Essential Ingredients.
You can also learn more about Erica Bauermeister at her website www.ericabauermeister.com