Our newest selection for Cook the Books is The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister, a novel about Lillian, a woman who runs her own restaurant and has lived most of her life through her cooking, discovering herself in the struggle to communicate with her mother through food. Lillian holds cooking classes at her restaurant and the book unfolds a story of the lives of her eight students. Each chapter focuses on one of the students, recounting the tale of how they came to be the people they are, what brought them to the restaurant, and how they become intimately involved in each other’s lives.
There were so many parts of the book that spoke to me, I eventually lost track and found myself becoming connected to the characters as well. I found myself laughing with them, cheering at their victories and grieving for them in times of loss. When trying to decide what to cook for this book, I thought I would find the answer by choosing my favorite character, but I couldn’t make myself choose one over another. So instead, I focused on my favorite scene in the book, which wasn’t easy either, and coincidentally, it also had one of my favorite meals as its central theme. Thanksgiving. I absolutely loved Lillian’s take on the traditional Thanksgiving meal, as I find myself every year trying to update the dishes we put on our table. What touched me most about this chapter, however, wasn’t as much the food, as the interaction between Isabelle and Antonia. Antonia is a fantastic Italian woman, striving to find her own place in our world, and Isabelle is a lost soul, desperately trying to cling to the well-worn life she seems to be losing her grip on. In this scene, Isabelle warns Antonia that she “seems to be losing herself lately” and that Antonia is taking her chances cooking with her. In a seamless role reversal, Antonia naturally assumes the role of Isabelle’s caretaker, and gives Isabelle the precious gift of little bits of memories returned to her. Pleasant memories or not, each glimpse is a treasure to Isabelle and we were lucky enough to relive them with her. A sprig of rosemary held under her nose reminds her of her honeymoon, a dish of cranberries soaking in sherry queue the memory of dinner parties past, and a bit of pasta dough brings to life the touch of a long lost lover. Antonia knows innately how to stimulate Isabelle’s mind with her sense of smell and of touch.
Smells and fragrances have always been the glue that holds my past to my present in the form of my memories and this chapter was a special treat for me. Bauermeister’s way of drawing out an image with such sensual descriptions of smell, touch, and taste reeled me in and touched my soul in a way very few books can.
And so, for my post, I chose Isabelle and Antonia’s turkey breast, stuffed with cranberries, garlic and rosemary. And as you know, you can’t have Thanksgiving without side dishes, so I also prepared Lillian’s green beans with lemon and pine nuts (since green bean season is in full swing right now) and polenta with gorgonzola (because, after all, I am a fantastic Italian woman, myself!). And I have to say, while I was bringing the meal together, I made a point to stop and smell each and every ingredient. Instead of Isabelle’s sherry for the cranberries, I opened a bottle of port to soak them in, and was transported back to Brown County, Indiana a few years ago, where I stood tasting wines at a local shoppe with my mom and my sister, and had my first taste of a beautiful local port during a day of mother-daughter quality time.
At the end of the book, I found myself sad that there was no more to read, wanting to know more about what happens with the students and their teacher. Whether the author intended it this way, I will never know, but upon finishing the book, I turned back to the front cover and read the title again. The School of Essential Ingredients. Suddenly I found that the “essential ingredients”, at least for me, did not come from the kitchen pantry, but were the characters themselves. In the end, each student was an essential ingredient in Lillian’s life, making her the person she is.
I hope you enjoy my translation of Lillian’s Thanksgiving. I think the meal was appropriate for the celebration of life, past and present, that Isabelle and Antonia shared in the kitchen that day.The turkey was so flavorful with the herbs and the touch of port infused in the cranberries, and the fresh farmers market green beans were wonderful with the lemon to really make the flavor pop. But the polenta was by far my favorite. Rich and creamy, the gorgonzola was a standout ingredient in this lovely dish. That is one I'll make again and again. I also especially love that the cooking class always had wine with their meals, and so I enjoyed a nice glass of Merlot with mine as well.
This is my submission for Cook the Books. Please check out all the other wonderful creations made this round as well!