Review: Epicurean Cure-All
The School of Essential Ingredients
( January 2009, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $24.95 )
With her first novel, The School of Essential Ingredients, Seattle writer Erica Bauermeister sets a lovely table with delectable writing, and invites readers to consume each page. Bauermeister, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Washington (where she also taught writing and literature), previously co-authored two nonfiction books: 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader’s Guide (Penguin, 1994) and Let’s Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2–14 (Penguin, 1997). But she’s proving to have a knack for fiction as well. With The School of Essential Ingredients she has imagined not just one story line but nine, which blend together in an enticing stew. We get to know Lillian, a chef teaching an evening cooking class who learned from an early age that the right culinary concoction can have truly magical effects, plus her eight students, all of whom have come for recipes but are in need of life-altering remedies. Bauermeister has a knack for cooking up metaphors—a preoccupied mother “slid into books like a seal into water”; neglected laundry is “a friend one never remembered to call”; sparkling wine bubbles are like “small, giggling children”—and her writing flows easily from one enticing dish to the next. Recalling Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, Essential Ingredients posits that a red sauce can heal wounds, tortillas inspire confidence and tiramisu is a mighty love potion. If you release yourself to such a hopeful prospect, you’re in for a delicious read.