This is the second time that I have read The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister. That makes this the first review of a re-read book that I’ve posted here. For whatever reason, distraction or something similar, I did not write a review the first time that I read this, which was about two years ago. It seems difficult to believe that it didn’t make enough of an impression on me at that point for me to review it, but I may have had a lot going on. I gave it five out of five stars on Goodreads, at least.
I found a copy of this book on a sale rack at the library, for just 25 cents. Even though I’ve been paring down the number of books I own, something told me that this was a book worth holding onto, and that I should snap it up. I remembered it just well enough to recognize it as something special, something I had enjoyed enough to revisit.
I had good reason to be glad I had bought it, once I finished reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I needed a lift after that one. It’s not that I allow the books I read to dictate my mood and my life, but they do have an effect on me, and since I read books in a continuous, nonstop flow, I like there to be a balance in the progression – an upswing for every low point. After taking a break and reading a joyful book or two, I will again return to something more serious. It works out.
The School of Essential Ingredients is a perfect choice to bring back the balance. This book is absolutely decadent. It is rich and beautiful, a pure pleasure to read. Erica Bauermeister uses adjectives as though they cost her nothing and are worth everything.
Every page brings another wave of descriptions, washing over the reader, bringing not only an increased understanding of the objects and places of the story, but also a heightened sensitivity to everything you find yourself surrounded by when you set the book down. The delicious awareness of sights, sounds, and smells carries over into real life, deepening your appreciation for all the small potential pleasures that people normally overlook. The author is clearly in love with life, enamored by the world around her; it’s apparent in every sentence, and it’s also infectious.
The gorgeous prose of the book is so satisfying as to make it almost unimportant to pay attention to what the book is actually about, which is why the simplicity of the plot works so well. A group of individuals, from widely varying walks of life, come together for a cooking class that meets on Monday evenings, once a month. There isn’t much more to it than that. The story is more about the people, who they are and how they are changing, than what is currently happening in their lives.
As the book and the course progress, each main character gets a turn on center stage with a chapter of his or her own, providing backstory and context. This is accomplished with subtlety and grace, the transitions made effortless by the reunion of the entire ensemble at each class session.
Ms. Bauermeister is a master of the craft of description. She does not fall into the trap of overly-flowery depictions of superfluous detail, but somehow keeps it concise while sweeping you off your feet. She describes the effects of falling in love with such accuracy and fondness that it is impossible not to feel it right along with her characters. With every shared glance, every touch, you’re there in the moment, with your pulse quickening and your heart swelling.
She manages the same feat with the characters’ experience of eating wonderful food, turning each bite into a life-changing event. At times, it is difficult not to jump out of your seat and run to the kitchen, to bury your nose in a bulb of garlic and pour a glass of wine.
Every page of The School of Essential Ingredients is a feast for the senses, one you never want to end. It goes by too quickly, even if you try to savor it, leaving behind a heady aftertaste and a hunger for more.