I rarely ever actively set out to read a book that I think I am going to hate. But I do pick up things willy-nilly that I don’t expect to necessarily like, because a blurb, an idea, or a cover appeals to me. It is always more surprising when I do like these books, than if I hated it. I take a lot of pleasure in closing a book and saying “Well. I didn’t hate that at all!” That probably sounds like an awful compliment to a writer, “Hey, you went beyond my very meager expectations,” but I consider it the equivalent of a positive “Huh!” followed by a pat on the back.
I didn’t hate Erica Bauermeister’s novel The School of Essential Ingredients at all. I picked it up because I liked the premise of a woman teaching a cooking class, especially after reading Jincy Willett’s The Writing Class. I wanted to see how the approaches would differ, and what kind of characters would show up for a Monday evening session in the kitchen of a restaurant, versus the kind of characters who would show up for a writing workshop.
The story opens with a young Lillian, whose mother is always nose-deep in literature and pays little attention to what happens outside of her books. Lillian begins experimenting with ingredients to coax her mother back to reality. She mixes up a gourmet hot chocolate, for instance, or amazing mashed potatoes. She frequently matches her mother’s most-recent genre to the style of foods she creates. Lillian becomes a dabbler and a pincher, a this-and-thatter, who never touches recipes and plays her meals by feel. She develops a connection to food, in home made pasta or tortillas, the aroma of spices, and is very connected to her senses of touch and smell.
Years later, Lillian is hosting Monday night cooking classes at her restaurant. She has eight students with varying levels of skill. Of course, each has a back story, and the chapters are divided to introduce these characters. Claire, the frazzled new mom; Chloe, a young klutz wearing too much makeup, Antonia, a kitchen designer from Italy; The aging Isabel, Tom, a sad, sad widower, Helen and Carl, married all these years and Ian, a bachelor.
In each chapter, Lillian, an all-knowing magician sort, plays like Mr. Rourke of Fantasy Island, sensing what the character needs and then using food to help the character or give them a bit of peace.
Okay. This is a little hokey. The writing is very flowery. Some of the characters are such a cliche (I’m looking at you, Claire, Chloe, Helen and Carl), and it all knits together a little too easily. But it is just a nice little feel-good story. The best back-stories belong to Lillian and Tom, the latter one got me a little weepy. The School of Essential Ingredients is a little like chick lit with menopause, but pretty charming.