Monday, February 23, 2009

A Gentle, Sweet Tale of Food, Cooking, and Possibly ... A Little Magic

"I'm thinking something minimal, industrial. Lots of stainless steel--I love stainless steel--with a concrete floor and black cabinets." Susan's hands gestured and pointed. "No handles--I hate handles --and maybe some rows of open metal shelves above the countertops. We could put the dishes and the new pots and pans up there." She turned to her fiance, who smiled and nodded. Amanda waited, thinking perhaps there would be more but this appeared to be the end.

:So we'll just leave you to do your magic for a littl while. Jeff and I need to go talk master bathroom, anyway. We're going to have to take out the whole third bedroom just to get a decent master suite!" And with another laugh, she was gone.


Antonia stood in the kitchen, trying in her mind to lay the outline of Susan's vision over the kitchen that existed, but the straight lines kept bumping into the curve of the bay, sharp edges rumpled by the cushion on a window seat, the rounded back of an imaginary chair, warmed and softened by the fireplace that somehow, in every iteration, never seemed to give way to the image that Susan had presented.

In Antonia's four years in America, in her four years of designing kitchens in eighty-year-old cottages and colonial mansions, contemporary condos and doll-size Tudors, this was the first fireplace she had seen in a kitchen, and she found herself circling it like a child with a dessert she knows is not for her. ...

But here was a fireplace. It reminded her of her grandmother's kitchen, with its stove at one end and a hearth at the other, the space in the middle long and wide enough to accommodate a wooden table for twelve and couches along the sides of the room. Her grandmother's cooking area was small--a tiny sink, no dishwasher, a bit of a counter--but out of it came tortellini filled with meat and nutmeg and covered in butter and sage, soft pillows of gnocchi, roasted chickens that sent the smell of lemon and rosemary slipping through the back roads of the small town, bread that gave a visiting grandchild a reason to run to the kitchen on cold mornings and nestle next to the fireplace, a hunk of warm, newly baked breakfast in each hand. How many times had she sat by the fire as a little girl and listened to the sounds of the women at the other end of the kitchen, the rhythmic rap of their knives against the wooden cutting boards, the clatter of spoons in thick ceramic bowls, and always their voices, loving, arguing, exclaiming aloud in laughter or mock horror at some bit of village news. Over the course of the day, the heat from the fireplace would stretch across the kitchen toward the warmth of the stove until the room filled with the smells of wood smoke and met that had simmered for hours. ...


"I don't know how to do this," Antonia told her boss in misery.

"What is the problem?" he asked.

"She doesn't want a place to cook. She wants a kitchen for people to see her in."

"You've dealt with those kind of clients before--more than once, and you've done it beautifully.:

"But this kitchen--you'd have to see it. I can't take it apart."

"But it's not your kitchen, Antonia, and they are the clients. You'll have to see through their eyes. Or," he added teasingly, "figure out a way to make them see through yours."
Here we see the basic message that Erica Bauermeister presents in different ways, through various characters in her first novel, The School of Essential Ingredients. The back cover says it is about "lessons that food can teach us about life," however I beg to disagree. It is about rediscovering our roots by turning away from the artificial and superficial ways of modernity back to the time-worn wisdom of slowing down life. Anyone familiar with the Slow Food movement will recognize a kindred message in Bauermeister's novel.

Bauermeister beautifully points out the many ways that fully appreciating ingredients, cooking, and meals changes lives in her story of the people who come to a series of cooking lessons. Some know that they are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives. Some do not. However, all are transformed as they handle, chop, combine, taste, and feed others. As each class's theme is revealed so is the story of a different person or couple. This includes the history of the school's instructor, Lillian, who also owns the restaurant in which the classes are held. There may be elements of magical realism involved (such as those found in Chocolat or Like Water for Chocolate) but the author didn't lean on these and most of the positive results were from grounding the characters' more in reality rather than hocus pocus.

I enjoyed this gentle, sweet tale although it suffered somewhat from comparison to the book I read immediately before it, The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones. Mones book delivered a more complex story, albeit with a different focus, and I found myself wishing that Bauermeister's plots were not quite as simple. We could see problems and conclusions before they were revealed and this was a disappointment, although the prose was as delicious as the food prepared in the novel. However, for a first novel it is very good and I can recommend it. In fact, I will be giving a copy of this book to my mother, who I think is in just the perfect mood to appreciate it.

I will be looking out for Bauermeister's second novel with anticipation.

For another review, read this one from Tea and Cookies.

Note: this review was based on an uncorrected proof from the publisher.

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