I just finished The School of Essential Ingredients, a novel written by Erica Bauermeister who is a literature professor living in Seattle. The novel is actually a series of vignettes, each story following one person in a cooking class being taught by Lillian, a person who has always been able to reach people through food….I tried to think of a better way to explain that but I’m striking out. It’s just got a magical premise and we’re going to have to work with it.
Now, I love food. In fact, I will go through a baking phase this weekend because of this book. I even think I may have drooled at one point as they baked crabs in butter and white wine. So, this is not a book to read while hungry. You may end up eating your shirt and it will be nowhere near as tasty as one of Lillian’s meals.
I like to try to cook. And I do not fare well without a recipe. Ask my grandmothers. The second I try to make one of their dishes, it all goes down hill and I call them trying to figure out what I am doing wrong. “Are you sure you don’t know how much oregano you put in?” I ask frantically as I try desperately to make my goulash taste 1/10th as good as my Grammy’s. “Oh, I just put it in until it taste right. More oregano than basil though!” So very helpful right? I’d last about a second in Lillian’s kitchen where there are no recipes, no directions that make sense. At one point her directions involved a list of ingredients and then you were supposed to wrap up the ingredients “like a package”. You seem to cook by feeling, by knowing, by adding ingredients because they are, well, essential, and magically whatever you make is a masterpiece, the exact dish you needed to make for that exact moment. Where is that in my kitchen I ask?
But once I finish drooling over the food, I mostly feel gypped by this book. Because of how Bauermeister put the narrative together, we never quite get the whole picture of any one character. Gaping holes in the narrative exist. I feel like I would like this book and these characters more if I just knew what happened to them next. What exactly occurred once Claire has her self-realization, once Chloe walked out of her boyfriend’s apartment, once Ian finally asked Antonia over for dinner? See? The story is missing all the good parts! Bauermeister would give us these tantalizing glimpses into a character’s life and then move onto the next one. Sure, I might get a hint here or there in someone else’s story about what happened but I would not get all the juice. I need closure; I am, not to put to fine a point on it, nosy. I want all the details, the entire story, not these artsy little endings that leave more questions than answers. I have never been a fan of books like that. A reason short stories and me have also never gotten along. OK, my imagination isn’t completely useless, I can think up endings for each character and, because I am me, they will all be happily ever afters. A lifetime of Disney movies has made sure I’ll never be cured of that tendency. But still, would it kill the author to finish the stories she started?
So, while I enjoyed The School of Essential Ingredients for the most part (if only for the food), it is not one I need to keep on my shelves. I would re-read and then just become annoyed again with the lack of an ending. The busybody in me needs all the details to enjoy the finale.