Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Whisper of Nutmeg

I recently discovered a novel that seems to have been written especially for this blog: The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. The title refers to a cooking school that the central character, Lillian, conducts once a month, on Monday nights when her restaurant is closed. She and her school are the unifying elements that run through the novel, bringing together the lives of eight students. For the most part, these students are there in an effort to escape from, identify, or deal with troubling non-culinary issues in their lives. Each character - Lillian included - is given a chapter that essentially begins with them stewing in their own juices. As the novel progresses, they simmer and blend together, demonstrating that joys and sorrows - like spices - come in an infinite variety of flavors, no two alike.

While foods, culinary techniques, and vivid sensual descriptions are infused throughout the novel, recipes per se are not. For example, the following instructions are given for preparing stuffed turkey breast with rosemary, cranberries, and pancetta:
"Take ingredients on the prep table, chop as need be. Butterfly turkey and flavor inside and out. Make a package. Send it."
Antonia and Isabelle, the two students charged with preparing the dish decide "we can work with that," but they also decide that the dried cranberries they have been given "need something," so they soak them in sherry. The sherry proves highly effective in reviving both the dried cranberries and certain memories, but not necessarily good ones.

Very early in the novel, we learn that Lillian's father abandoned her and her mother when she was four years old. As a result, her mother "slid into books like a seal into water," leaving Lillian to learn, as early as she could, how to handle all forms of housework:
"But it was the cooking that occurred in her friends' homes that fascinated Lillian - the aromas that started calling to her just when she had to go home in the evening. Some smells were sharp, an olfactory clatter of heels across a hardwood floor. Others felt like the warmth in the air at the far end of summer."
As this passage illustrates, some of Bauermeister's sensory characterizations are superb, especially in her description of Lillian's childhood. Another example is young Lillian's description of avocado as, "wrinkled and grumpy on the outside, spring green within, creamy as ice cream when smashed into guacamole."

One of the things I particularly liked about The School of Essential Ingredients is its form. By giving each character a chapter presented from their own point of view, questions can be posed from one perspective, examined and debated in others, and finally answered in yet another. For example, early on the night of the first class, we see seven complete strangers through the eyes of Claire, a young mother wrestling with questions of just who she really is, beyond her roles as wife and mother. She scans the room forming initial impressions of the other seven, including "a beautiful woman with olive skin and eyes the color of melted chocolate" who turns out to be Antonia, while next to her, "almost hidden in the corner of the room, sat a man whose sadness seemed to have been pressed into his shirt." The general question Claire's initial scan of the room poses - "who are these people?" - is refined into more specific questions as we move through the novel, which are answered in turn, sometimes quite surprisingly.

In one of their last classes, Lillian and her students prepare fondue, and the following description of the results seems an apt metaphor for the book overall:
"Helen prepared a bite and placed the fork inside her mouth, the sharpness of the Gruyere and Emmenthaler mingling with the slight bite of the dry white wine and melting together into something softer, gentler, meeting up with the steady hand of bread supporting the whole confection. Hiding, almost hidden, so she had to take a second bite to be sure, was the playful kiss of cherry kirsch and a whisper of nutmeg."

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