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135 of 138 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Recommended
Lillian's father deserts his wife and young daughter literally, and then her mother deserts her figuratively -- disappearing deeply into the solace of books as a coping mechanism. As Lillian takes on the management of the household, she discovers an intuition for cooking and uses food alchemy to try to reach her mother. Later, when grown, Lillian applies this intuition to...
Published on January 22, 2009 by emmejay

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110 of 122 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Wanted to LOVE it.
I saw the great reviews and the book summary and was really expecting to LOVE this book. It was even my recommendation for our ladies book club. We only select female authors, agree with Ms. Bauermeister's perspective on promoting them and love cooking classes and food. At the discussion session for the book though, the other ladies walked away with feelings similar to...
Published on September 4, 2009 by Sparkle


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135 of 138 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Recommended, January 22, 2009
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Lillian's father deserts his wife and young daughter literally, and then her mother deserts her figuratively -- disappearing deeply into the solace of books as a coping mechanism. As Lillian takes on the management of the household, she discovers an intuition for cooking and uses food alchemy to try to reach her mother. Later, when grown, Lillian applies this intuition to operating a first-class restaurant and conducting an annual series of cooking classes called the School of Essential Ingredients.

Through themes associated with a particular food or meal, each chapter explores one class and the life of one of the students: a mother lost in the needs of young children; a long-married couple; a kitchen designer; a young widower; a misfit teenager; a software engineer; and a woman moving into the middle stages of dementia.

The writing is sensual and lush, the stories tender and hopeful, with a magical realism evocative of Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate. Since I finished the book, I've wanted nothing more than to read the stories of the next year's class. Highly recommended.
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50 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intense, emotional descriptions of food deepen and enrich the gems of character studies that comprise the novel, January 26, 2009
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Bookreporter (New York, New York) - See all my reviews
When she was a little girl, Lillian discovered the power of food to bring people back to themselves. After Lillian's father left the family, Lillian's mother retreated into a fictional world, her face always hidden behind the pages of a book. Only when Lillian, desperate to reconnect with her mother, enlisted the help of an "Abuelita" from the neighborhood grocery store, did she discover that a perfectly prepared dish, a few "essential ingredients," had the ability to bring her mother back to reality --- and to her daughter.

This ability of food, and cooking, to connect people with themselves, their past and each other is the common theme of Erica Bauermeister's THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS. The novel gets its title from the cooking school that Lillian, now an adult, runs on evenings when her popular, high-end restaurant is closed. On the first Monday of each month, Lillian's restaurant kitchen is filled with a colorful assortment of amateur cooks, some eager to deepen their own culinary connections, some unsure what brought them to this place.

There's Claire, who's been so smothered by the constant physical and emotional demands of being a young wife and mother that she's forgotten what it means to make time and space for her own interests. There's Carl and Helen, an older couple whose seemingly perfect marriage hides a history of betrayal, redemption and hard work. There's Tom, whose passion for food was ignited by the love of his life. And there's Isabelle, whose short-term memory is failing her in her old age, but whose rich, long life rushes back to the present when she indulges in the nourishing, delicious food Lillian's restaurant prepares.

THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS will likely appeal to fans of THE FRIDAY NIGHT KNITTING CLUB, THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB and other novels where a group encounter serves as the foil for exploring individuals' stories. Unlike those books, however, Bauermeister's is best read not as an overarching story but as a series of linked character studies, as exquisitely prepared and satisfying as the dishes Lillian prepares in her restaurant. Although two of the characters do begin a tentative romance and one fulfills a career aspiration, the focus here is less on where they're going, plot-wise, and more on where they've been and who they are.

And then there's the food. Bauermeister has a gift for writing about food in sensual, evocative terms, connecting the dish's rich flavors not only to her characters' rich histories but also to the reader's inner palate. "She took a piece of melon in her fingers, wrapped it with a translucent slice of pink meat, and motioned for him to open his mouth. The meat was a whisper of salt against the dense, sweet fruit. It felt like summer in a hot land, the smooth skin in the curve between Charlie's strong thumb and index finger. The wine afterward was crisp, like coming up to the surface of water to breathe." Such intense, emotional descriptions of food deepen and enrich the gems of character studies that comprise the novel. They're also likely to send hungry readers to their own kitchens, where they might find themselves reconnecting to the pleasures of food --- and to their own intriguing life stories.

--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl
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110 of 122 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Wanted to LOVE it., September 4, 2009
By 
Sparkle (Northern Virginia) - See all my reviews
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I saw the great reviews and the book summary and was really expecting to LOVE this book. It was even my recommendation for our ladies book club. We only select female authors, agree with Ms. Bauermeister's perspective on promoting them and love cooking classes and food. At the discussion session for the book though, the other ladies walked away with feelings similar to mine. What I did like is that it was a book about everyday life, relationships, emotions and of course... food!

I found it very difficult to engage and enjoy the characters, ambience and storyline the author was weaving due to what I though was an overwhelming number of metaphors and similes used throughout each page of the book. So many, that I eventually found myself counting them and many times, there were several per page... one page after the next. It just seemed very forced.

Writing a book is such a difficult, personal accomplishment and I mean no disrepect to the author. As she continues to write, I hope the trusts her own beautiful words and descriptions to take the reader on her journeys rather than relying on the comparisons that kept taking me off course in this novel.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Recommended Read!, January 22, 2009
By 
LWB (Seattle, WA USA) - See all my reviews
In "The School of Essential Ingredients" Erica Bauermeister mixes the deep personal stories of Lillian & her students, simple but sophisticated foods, and Monday night lessons that go beyond the kitchen to create a rich, flavorful book that will make you crave your favorite restaurant or favorite food. Put something delicious in the oven, pour yourself a glass of wine and take in this wonderful first novel. You will feel satisfied, yet hungry for a 2nd novel. Enjoy!
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written first novel!, January 22, 2009
Renowned chef Lillian owns a restaurant in the Pacific Northwest and every Monday night she hosts a cooking class.

Yep, that's pretty much it. Sounds too simple, right?

This novel is, above all else, a beautifully written character study of each student in Lillian's class. Each character is given their own chapter and their diversity is bound to strike a chord in readers from all walks of life.

Bibliophiles everywhere will see themselves in Lillian's mother, a woman who used books to escape the harsh realities of life.

Mothers will be drawn to Claire, a young woman who gave up her identity to be a wife and mother.

Young adults seeking to find direction in this world will be drawn to Chloe, who is still trying to create an identity.

And there are more; each character more compelling than the last. Each character finds that the simple act of creating meals illuminates many of life's problems and can sometimes even provide solutions.

The story itself is not near as important as how it is told. There is a difference between writing and prose, and prose doesn't have to be difficult to read or enjoy. Bauermeister masterfully proves this again and again throughout the novel.

You find yourself revisiting passages not to understand some convoluted prose, but to savor and enjoy it.

A brilliant first novel and if you've never read a food-related novel, this is where to start. You will want to eat this book.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars DELIGHTFUL - BEST READ I HAVE HAD SO FAR THIS YEAR, April 30, 2009
It would be difficult to name a book that has brought me so much pure reading pleasure as this first offering by an author who we will be hearing more from; beyond a doubt! This was simply a pleasing, well crafted and enchanting book. The only complaint I have about the book is that it ended far too soon and I would dearly have loved to know more about Lillian, the main character who absolutely fascinated me.

Our main character in this book, Lillian, is a lady who can cook and cook well. She is an expert chief and owner of her own restraint. Each Monday night she closes the eating establishment and gives cooking lessons to small groups of people. This work blends the story of Lillian's cooking lessons with Lillian's lessons in life as conveyed through the dishes she helps her students to prepare. Each chapter is a presentation of a new meal and each chapter tells the story of one of the students in the class. Basically the author has given us a series of character sketches mixed with delightful thoughts of food and its preparation. Now this is not a cook book by any means. More attention is paid to the ingredients used in each recipe and how it reacts to the other ingredients to perform a bit of magic, both gastronomical and indeed, with life. Of course the author uses this to hang the premise that people, like a good meal, are actually a part of the whole; each interacting with others to make the perfect dish.

As has been pointed out by a couple of other reviewers, the author is quite liberal with her similes. While some did not seem to care for this, I personally loved it as each pretty well hit the nail on the head. As to character development (what ever that means), I found the author to be an absolute delight in this area. She is able to have you inside her character's head within a few sentences whereas many authors take pages and pages, if not chapters to do so. In addition to these wonderful little stories about each of the individual inhabiting this work, we have the food! Oh my, if you like food and like cooking DO NOT read this work when you are hungry or have easy access to your kitchen. I was constantly tempted to drop the book and head for the oven and the spice cabinet. Ms. Bauermeister has an uncanny ability to actually describe taste to the extent you physically taste the ingredients she is talking about as you read her words. While on a certain level this book is simple and an easy read, on yet another level it is quite profound. For those that do not appreciate food, cooking and people, this probably is not the best choice of reads. For myself, I enjoyed every word the author wrote. Her syntax is quite out of the ordinary in this day and age which makes be suspicion that he very young, i.e. teens and the like, may not quite appreciate the skill that went into this work. I feel they may find it a bit overly flowery at times, but then when you consider what they are exposed to at this time, this is perfectly understandable.

As far as my personal taste goes, this is one of the better reads I have had in any genre for quite a long time now. It is one that will go on the shelf to be reread at a later date. It is also a work that makes me hope that this author is busy at her word processer as I write this, turning out more of the type of work we find with this wonderful little read.

I do highly recommend this one. It is a fast read and even if you don't like the book I will guarantee it will make you hungry. As a side light, it certainly has caused me to pay much closer attention to what I am doing while cooking and has caused me to stop, pause and truly think about the ingredients I am using and just what effect they will have on my cooking and perhaps the people I am serving it to.

I do wish I could give this one more than just five stars.

Don Blankenship
The Ozarks
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed feelings....I wanted to love this., February 12, 2009
There are things I do love about this book, but my main complaint is that there isn't enough of it. It's a very short book and feels highly polished, every line labored over until it gleams...but there's just not enough of them. The book feels unfinished in that it doesn't dig deep enough into any of these stories and just skims the surface. Also, the voice throughout doesn't change, all the characters seem to think and speak in the same dream-like, pretty way, which is a little disconcerting. It's too much of the author's voice, intruding on the story for this reader.

The most frustrating thing for me, is that this book really had so much potential. I am a foodie, and the way she talks about food is mesmerizing, and lyrical.

I think this book would have been much stronger if there were less characters, and more time devoted to each. At the end, this doesn't feel so much like a novel as it does a collection of pretty scenes that drift along. I would have liked to have seen more on Lillian especially, as the book begins with a look at her early life, then departs to stop briefly on each of the students, and never really goes back to Lillian.

A big disappointment was the dinner towards the end, that Ian is shown getting ready for, but there's never a payoff where we see how it goes.

When I started this book, I expected to love it, to be swept into the story and then to rave about it at the end. But, when I finished, I just felt disappointed, and unsatisfied, mostly because this story just never developed the way that it could. Honestly, I think the focus was more on making the writing as beautiful as possible, and it was lovely in spots, but so much so that in the end, it detracted from the story itself as it kept me at a distance, noticing the clever writing, instead of getting lost in the story.

If you want a light, easy to put down or pick up kind of story with gorgeous writing and food descriptions, you may enjoy this. If you are looking for something with more depth, that will stay with you, then I'm not sure if this will do it for you.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful writing, but it became out of hand, October 15, 2010
This review is from: The School of Essential Ingredients (Paperback)
Before I go into why I didn't enjoy this novel, I want to say that I believe Erica Bauermeister is a very talented author, who certainly has a way with words and a knack for really elegant descriptions, especially descriptions of food. However, as many other reviewers said, there were way too many metaphors and similes in this novel, enough to become a distraction. Only a few pages in, I found myself absentmindedly counting them, which means it has been overdone. The writing, while very good, was often a bit too flowery and sickeningly sweet for my taste. It seemed as if everything was "perfect" in this novel - the ripe tomato, the shape of pasta, the scent of bread. Everything mundane was taken to the extreme. I suppose that may have been the author's point, to romanticize food and eating, but I still felt it was a bit too unrealistic.

A character named Claire felt as if she had lost herself after having two children and drifting away from her husband. She eats a bit of crab and feels as if she has been put back together again. This is the premise for the entire novel, chapter by chapter, character by character.

The characters were all right enough, but there were too many of them and only a few stuck out to me, while the others faded into oblivion. Lillian seemed almost god-like in comparison to the lost souls she taught in her cooking class. Her dialogue sounded as if she had practiced it for hours to sound like a wise sage. She seemed to have a sixth sense and be keenly aware of what all of her students were going through at all times. For example, she makes a point to tell a man who lost his wife to breast cancer "You'll want to make sure there are no lumps" when referring to mixing a cake mix. Of course, this flowed into the character's story about finding the lump in his wife's breast. It just seemed a bit too coincidental.

I wanted to enjoy this novel and believe food did have the power to really heal all of these people. It just seemed so unlikely to me that any of this could have ever been real - the food tasting as good as it was described, the cheesy dialogue between complete strangers. The story was almost trying to desperately convince the readers that things can really happen like this, but I failed to be persuaded.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lush and Beautiful, February 1, 2009
On Monday nights, Lillian teaches a cooking class at the restaurant. Eight students make their way to class, coming through the side gate and following the golden glow to the kitchen in back, where they will learn to cook from a woman who knows how to inspire her students to create food from the heart and from their memories rather than from a recipe.

Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different student, alternating between reflections of their past and what is happening in the present, how they found their way to the class and how they get to know the other students. Lillian seems to know just what her students need to learn, and the lessons transform not only their culinary skills but also their lives.

Reminiscent of Garden Spells and Like Water for Chocolate, there is a bit of magical realism to the book- but just a touch- not overdone at all. Bauermeister's vividly detailed descriptions of food leave your mouth watering and put you right into Lillian's kitchen. The writing is richly textured, lush and sensual. It is really quite beautiful. This is a debut novel but felt like it was written by a wise old soul.

My only complaint about this book is that there are no recipes, however that makes sense since Lillian is teaching her students to cook without using recipes. Still, it would be nice to know how to make these dishes- or to know what essential secret ingredient to add to tonight's dinner to make my children behave and my husband pay attention!

If you like good fiction and good food, The School of Essential Ingredients is the perfect combination of the two. I realize I'm gushing here, but I loved the warm little world within these pages, and was sorry to leave it.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Delectable Treat, March 4, 2009
Lillian has discovered that the art of preparing fine foods can heal many of the soul's wounds. Personal experience tells her so. As students filter into the cooking school that she holds in her restaurant every Monday night, she begins to teach them the secrets of culinary excellence, tailoring the meals to each particular person's unspoken need. As raw ingredients are transformed into luscious feasts, each person in the class is also changed. From the frazzled housewife to the couple with a stormy past, each person begins to realize that the lessons taught in Lillian's kitchen have far greater reach than the table. Carrying the secrets of the kitchen back into their own lives, the students start to experience greater understanding and healing in their own lives and begin to see the class as a refuge, where the compassion of one chef and the support of each other coalesce in unexpected and curative ways.

As a lover of food literature, I have to say this book was divine. I found the food descriptions to be wonderfully luscious and intriguing, and the human element of the story was great as well. The chapters, which focused in turn on each of the students, were crafted very compellingly because they seemed to be written in various styles. They were not so different as to be jarring, but the writing of each subject was done in a unique and singular way. I took this as a great sign of the author's versatility. She was able to make each character's chapter their own by making small changes in the writing technique.

I also loved the depth of emotion in this story. The author showed great empathy and consideration for her characters and was able to enrich the story with great emotional control. I loved the tenderness and humility of her characters. These were thoughtful and deep people who were able to express intrinsic emotions in proportion tho their circumstances. The emotional scenes in this book were written with great acuity and depth, and ranged from a light playfulness to a profound grief. I think the author used each blank canvas of character in magnetic and engaging ways that added substantial dimension to the book. Her characters weren't stereotypical knock-offs, they seemed like authentic and genuine people, like people you know, people you love. This book could have easily been overblown with drama, but the author was able to form her narrative and characters with a wonderful humility and temperance.

I found Lillian's character to be a marvel. She was consistently loving and calm towards all her students, showing by example the healing and restorative nature of life through food. I found Lillian to be a wonderfully frank and disarming person. Whenever she was on the page I knew that something great was about to be uncovered. I loved the way she enabled her students to make the most of their lessons, and their lives, both praising and teaching at the same time. She was a wonderfully competent character, both believable and charming. The story was extremely moving as well. It was both perceptive and profound, especially the chapters involving Tom, the man hiding a secret heartbreak. Although I loved Lillian, I think it was Tom and his story that moved me the most. I cried while reading Tom's story, sharing his anguish and despair with a heavy heart.

And have I mentioned the food? The food aspects of the story were fascinating and delectable. Many times throughout this book I read and reread the passages relating to the food. Her descriptions of the smells and look of the foods being prepared were like poetry, lyrical and passionate in a way I didn't expect, yet fully appreciated. I thought it was an exceptional additional benefit that almost all the food sections were written in the form of instructions, not recipes per se, but in a way that melded the story with bits of guidance that would make it easy for the reader to put together any of the featured dishes in the book.

This book was a delight on multiple levels. It was a combination of the tenacity of the human spirit and an ambrosial documentary of fine cuisine. I would have gladly read another hundred pages of this novel, had it only been written! This is not to say that the story ended unsatisfactorily, because it certainly did not. I just wanted more of this magnificent and savory tale. I thought the author did a wonderful job in both the idea and the execution. It was a quiet and uplifting tale full of scrumptious spreads. I would like to read this one again, just for the food this time. Highly recommended for foodies and those who are looking for a rich and satisfying novel.
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The School of Essential Ingredients
The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister (Paperback - January 5, 2010)
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