Jen's Reviews > The School of Essential Ingredients

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
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Dec 30, 10

Read in December, 2010

This book was more of a 2.5- it was okay at parts and others I liked.

The main setting of the book is a cooking class at a restaurant owned by Lillian, who you learn in the beginning grew up teaching herself how to cook when she was instinctively drawn to the sights, smells, and intangible feelings food and their ingredients inspired in her; this love of cooking was also developed as a result of her mother's neglect of real life in favor of books and reading.

While Lillian can be classified as the main character, she's not really, because the only thing you learn about her was how she came to her love of cooking. She's more part of the setting, along with her restaurant, as each chapter in the book focuses on a different member of her cooking class and different situations in their life they're facing now or in the past. One guy recently lost his wife, another is a mother who doesn't have time for herself, an older couple who've stayed together through some tough times, etc. Each of their stories is woven together with a specific class Lillian is teaching that night, tying that lesson into their stories (personally, I didn't really see that tie much, except maybe at a very broad level, but I understood that's what each story was meant to do.)

Since my feelings are somewhat mixed, I'll break the review down to good and bad:

Good: quick, light read. This is what I call a "cozy" book; good to read at night on your couch by a fire. The writing, setting, and Lillian all have a magical quality to them reminiscent of Chocolat (the movie anyway, never read the book, but I imagine it to be similar.) Overall this makes it a nice, enjoyable read.

Bad: The biggest problem was the overuse of metaphors and similes- some worked, quite a few didn't. Sometimes it felt like similes were there just to make the book feel more poetic, because some of the comparisons seemed very random. For example "Tom looked down into the pan. It did look strange, the white at first swirling around the meat, pulling away from the oil like a finicky child who doesn't want to get her hands dirty."

First of all, ignoring the fact I don't know too many children afraid of getting their hands dirty (quite the opposite,) that simile just falls flat to me and doesn't add to the visual she's trying to create. I'm not an English major, but to me, similes should be made between two things that aren't related but have a common visual aspect that you can draw a comparison from (eyes sparkling like diamonds, skin smooth as velvet.) Oil swirling around meat and a child not wanting their hands to get dirty just doesn't work for me.

The other issue, which another reviewer commented on, was the way each character, all very different people, had the same voice. I couldn't quite put my finger on what was bothering me until I read that review. They all see things through the same poetic, magical lense. While that sounds nice, it doesn't help to build each character as a separate voice, they just all blend together, as if Lillian is telling each of their stories through her own eyes.

In the end, maybe that's what the author wanted, because that voice is what lends the charm to the book, so maybe it's not a bad thing, but it is definitely something you notice.

One last note; if you really like to cook, this is definitely a good book for you. It's very visual, and gives every ingredient a specific feel or thought to it, making food feel more magical and less mundane.
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