Patricia Wellingham-Jones — On Monday nights eight people gather in a restaurant kitchen to learn about cooking, and themselves.
The School of Essential Ingredients (Berkley Books, 2009) is Erica Bauermeister’s first novel and I found it enchanting – well written, entertaining, sensuous in describing food and the feelings it brings to body and soul. Lillian is a chef at her own restaurant and once a month on Monday, the day it’s closed, she gives a cooking class. In her words, “The first question people always ask me is, What are the essential ingredients?… 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.”
Lillian knows the students come for varied reasons: Claire needs to get away from family and regain some sense of self; Ian was given the class as a gift; Isabelle fears the loss of memory and hopes the smells and textures of food will help her remember things, the rest have other needs, other reasons. During the course of the class, Lillian chooses foods and herbs she feels are needed by each individual; each chapter tells one person’s story and how that food touched and healed something in him or her.
Charlie says about life, “We’re all just ingredients… What matters is the grace with which you cook the meal.” Lillian shows that cooking comes from within, from the heart, and may be healing, a source of comfort; that food is a conversation with the ingredients, not a set of rigid rules. Her students discover the joy of opening up to new things and begin to connect with each other. The writing is sumptuous; you can smell the aromas, feel the textures, savor the completed dishes, though there is not a formal recipe in the whole book.
You will love this if you’re a foodie, you’re also apt to enjoy it and learn things about food, and yourself, even if you don’t much care about cooking.
About the Author
Patricia Wellingham-Jones is a former psychology researcher and writer/editor with an interest in healing writing and the benefits of writing and reading work together. Widely published in poetry and nonfiction, she writes for the review department of Recovering the Self: a journal of hope and healing and has authored ten chapbooks of poetry.