The School of Essential Ingredients

I’ve never read a book about cooking before, except, you know, a cook book, but The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister was a fantastic read. The prose was beautiful, elegant, and rich. I know this sounds like it’s leading to a terrible metaphor comparing cooking and the elements of a story (mix them together, blend gently, folded into the story…) but I really loved this book.

Lillian owns a restaurant and teaches cooking classes on Monday nights once a month. There are eight students, and each chapter revolves around one of the students. The book opens with Lillian’s story, explaining why she loves to cook. As she grew up, she used cooking to connect with her mom and draw her out of her shell, guided by Abuelita, who is a neighborhood shop owner who teaches her certain cooking lessons. Much of Lillian’s “training” comes from experiments she does on her own. She learns to cook without following recipes but going with her intuition and mixing ingredients based on what emotions she wants to create.

Each following chapter then takes one of the students and digs deeper into their story. There is a young girl trying to define her life, a mother who doens’t remember who she is without her children, and a man who lost his wife to breast cancer, to name a few. The stories begin to intertwine with each other as the classes continue and the students get to know each other. A romantic relationship forms between two of the students and unlikely friendships develop.

The interesting thing about the classes is that Lillian doesn’t actually teach her students how to make meals. She splits up tasks and sends them off with vague instructions, leaving them to become comfortable with their own intuition – how long the wine needs to simmer for the sauce, or how long the butter and sugar need to be blended for a white cake.

I would recommend this book to those who like cooking, reading about cooking, or just want to read something beautiful. This book made me wonder if any of the cooking instructions could be followed based on Bauermeister’s description…

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