Saturday, June 06, 2009

The School of Essential Ingredients

I just finished reading The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. It's a book that will stay with me for a long time. As the title suggests it's about a cooking school or, more precisely, a once-a-week cooking class taught by Lillian at her restaurant. The book opens with Lillian's back story--her father left when she was rather young and her mother retreated into reading obsessively. So Lillian dragged a chair to the stove and taught herself to cook--no cookbook, no recipes, and she still cooks that way. There are, she believes, essential ingredients but cooking goes far beyond that.
The narrative flashes back and forth in time as we meet various members of the cooking class, sit in on the classes, and learn each participant's back story. There's the devoted older couple, Helen and Carl, but we gradually learn, first from his point of view and then hers, that their marriage has not always been smooth; there's Isabelle, the older woman who once comes to class on the wrong night and is invited to dinner by the gentle, kind, and intuitive Lillian, and whose mind wanders in the tangled garden of her memory, sometimes with sharp clarity. And Tom, enveloped in a cloud of sadness over his wife's death, and Chloe, young and trying to find her way in life only to discover it through food. Antonia is from Italy, irresisitibly attractive and earthy in her reaction to the foods, and Ian, who goes about learning to cook in the scientific way a software engineer would, but he finally invites Antonia to a spontaneous dinner that he fixes. Bauermeister takes us inside all their heads, so that they tell their own story, though we never learn much about her story after childhood. Still she owns a successful restaurant, and she shepherds people carefully, believing spices can wake up a memory, heal a heart. You can't help but want to be in her cooking class.
If there are no recipes in this book, it's because food, for Lillian, is not an intellectual or scientific exercise. It's about the senses--taste and texture, smell and sound. At one point she passes around good olive oil for the students to dip their finger in and taste, followed by good, dark aged balsamic vinegar. The class makes fondue, pasta, eats chocolate, drinks wine--all about watching the ingredients flow together and sensing when it is right.
It is also a book of beautiful, sensuous writing. Prosciutto wrapped around melon is "a whisper of salt against the dense sweet fruit," and the wine afterward "crisp, like coming up to the surface of water to breathe." When she is learning to cook, Lillian makes a cream sauce filled with "disconcerting pockets of flour, like bills in your mailbox when you had hoped for a love letter." Metaphor piles on metaphor and yet such figurative, imaginative writing works perfectly in this book.
I am a person who enjoys food unbashedly (which makes Weight Watchers hard for me) but I hope Bauermeister's book will stay with me and change me, for it's about slowing down to enjoy the sense of the moment. Something I've need to do all my life and am hoping retirement will teach me. I want to savor the food I love slowly--but also other things: the company of my children and grandchildren, Jacob this morning as he demanded I come sit next to him on the couch so we could have conversations about nothing, my dog begging to be loved, or my cat lying contentedly by my keyboard, or a hilarious trip to the grocery store this morning with Jordan and Jacob, Jacob sitting in the cart and calling to me across aisles. I sometimes let the good times of life just roll over me. Lillian would never approve.

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