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With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, thoughts turn to food and travel. I’ll get to where I’m going next week by train and automobile. My sister and brother-in-law will keep us up late watching random movies, which I love, and my niece will sneak down before the sun comes up to start her day and mine. She pokes me in the face with always the same wake up call “Will you open my geeky yogurt? And, ooh, let’s play a game!” Her parents come down hours later looking extremely well rested.

I impose no limitations on the amount of caffeine consumed during these stays. The food area brings some trepidation because there’s always a chance of cross-contamination. Just this week, I was glutened by a quick lunch at a casual restaurant and spent the last few days in bed. If you have an auto immune disease, gluten doesn’t just make you feel a little bleh. It effects my nervous system, my brain gets swallowed into fog and the whole world turns into a rocky ship about to tip while something keeps stabbing at the abdomen. In a nutshell it suckeths.

This year I’m bringing my own gf, vegan-friendly Thanksgiving foods, so I’m really glad to have stumbled on Erica Bauermeister’s novel The School of Essential Ingredients. It made me happy. Reminded me that cooking is a most hands-on process, relying on smell, taste and intuition to harmonize textures and flavors, and it’s all in the interest of bringing pleasure. It’s impossible to see food as an evil little assassin after reading a story that proves its unifying force.

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

Once a month Lillian teaches a cooking class to eight students. They meet on a Monday when her restaurant is dark and learn how to pour their hearts into a dish. The first chapter belongs to Lillian. It brings us to a time in her childhood just after her dad left when her mom sunk into a deep depression and, just like the mother in American Cookery, she abandoned the real world for fiction, one book after the next without pausing to make sure her daughter ate. It was then that, with the help of a friend, Lillian learned how to use food to remind people who they are, to reach out and bring them back. I loved the first chapter.

Lillian’s unique perspective of food goes deeper than how flavors relate to one another to the emotions of spices, the colors of tastes. Some of the lessons wax philosophical while others are pure celebration. Her kitchen is a special place where time doesn’t exist and you never know who’s life will tangle with yours.

Kneading dough is like swimming or walking – it keeps part of your mind busy and allows the rest of your mind to go where it wants or needs to.

After Lillian each chapter focuses on a different student and the lesson they’re learning that month.  The students come to the class from very different points in life. Claire is a mother who adores her family, but feels lost in motherhood like its become her only identity. A quick, appreciative glance from a stranger awakens her. An older couple’s not so perfect history reveals deep scars of betrayal and pain just beneath the surface of their loving ways.

Cooking brings them back to small, intimate, life-changing moments. A numb cancer window softens at the scent of garlic, his deceased wife’s favorite thing in the world. A woman approaching dementia wanders through memories of a broken marriage and a fleeting love affair. 

…memories are like this dessert.I eat it, and it becomes a part of me, whether I remember it later or not.

It’s hard to believe this rich novel is Bauermeister’s first. The story is kind of like a tiramisu, my all time favorite dessert. It’s decadent, layered and you can never have enough. Calling the structure simple doesn’t do it justice. It’s elegant and fitting. The author worked with everything she had to create layers of sub-plots. Every character has a need that these Monday’s in Lillian’s kitchen magnifies and sometimes manages to fill.

Like any great novel, I didn’t want this one to end. So I went to her website and guess what? Guess what guess what guess what? There’s a follow up book, The Lost Art of Mixing, and it’s already packed in my bag for train reading. Hope I don’t miss my stop again.

The Lost Art of Mixing by Erica Baeurmeister

The Lost Art of Mixing by Erica Baeurmeister