13 reviews

The School of Essential Ingredients
by Erica Bauermeister

Published: 2009-01-20
Kindle Edition : 0 pages
21 members reading this now
65 clubs reading this now
17 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 11 of 13 members
A "heartbreakingly delicious" national bestseller about a chef, her students, and the evocative lessons that food teaches about life

Once a month, eight students gather in Lillian's restaurant for a cooking class. Among them is Claire, a young woman coming to terms with her new ...
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A "heartbreakingly delicious" national bestseller about a chef, her students, and the evocative lessons that food teaches about life

Once a month, eight students gather in Lillian's restaurant for a cooking class. Among them is Claire, a young woman coming to terms with her new identity as a mother; Tom, a lawyer whose life has been overturned by loss; Antonia, an Italian kitchen designer adapting to life in America; and Carl and Helen, a long-married couple whose union contains surprises the rest of the class would never suspect...

The students have come to learn the art behind Lillian's soulful dishes, but it soon becomes clear that each seeks a recipe for something beyond the kitchen. And soon they are transformed by the aromas, flavors, and textures of what they create.

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Discussion Questions

1) When Claire first walks into Lillian's cooking class, she reflects: “When was the last time she had been someplace where nobody knew who she was?” Is the anonymity of the kitchen a lure for Lillian's students? Does Lillian-or the author-encourage or discourage the notion of the restaurant being a place apart from the everyday world?

2) How did you respond to the story of Lillian's upbringing? Would she have been better off with a more traditional home life? Do you agree with Abuelita's statement that “sometimes our greatest gifts grow from what we're not given?”

3) Besides scenes from Lillian's childhood, the author discloses very little about Lillian. Why do you think the author did this? How would the book be different if we knew more about Lillian's day-to-day life?

4) Each of the character's stories centers on a dish or ingredient which has a profound affect upon how they see themselves or the world. What connections do you see between Claire and the crabs? Between Chloe and tortillas? Tom and the pasta sauce?

5) As a general rule, Lillian doesn't give her students recipes. Why do you think she does this? What are the pros and cons of this approach to cooking?

6) Did Helen do the right thing by telling Carl about her affair? Or do you agree with Carl when he “found himself wishing that she, who could keep a Christmas secret from their children for months, could have kept this one for herself.” How would their marriage - and Carl and Helen themselves - have evolved had he never learned the truth?

7) Lillian tells the class that “A holiday is a lot like a kitchen. What's important is what comes out of it.” In what way do the kitchens in this book - Lillian's childhood kitchen, the greasy spoon where Tom meets Charlie, the kitchen that Antonia saves from demotion - represent different celebrations of life? Is there a kitchen in your life that you associate with a particular celebration or emotional milestone?

8) Isaac says to Isabelle that he thinks "we are each a ladder and a chair for the other." What do you think he means? Are there people in your life who are or have been that for you?

9) At the end of the novel, Lillian reflects: “She saw how connected [the students] lives had become and would remain. Where did a teacher fit in the picture, she wondered, when there was no longer a class?” What do you think happens to Lillian once her class is disbanded? Do you feel each character's story is resolved? What do you imagine happens in these characters' lives after the book ends?

10) What would be your essential ingredients?

Suggested by Members

Kitchens: Is there a kitchen in your life that evokes a certain memory, i.e., particular celebrations or emotional milestone?
Thanksgiving traditions: Lillian takes a different approach to the Thanksgiving meal. What did you think of her approach? What are your Thanksgiving memories?
by SJenaiAppleBook (see profile) 10/30/17

Our hostess put the character's names on slips of paper and we all drew one. We went in order of how the characters were highlighted in the book with the person who drew the name first giving her impression of the character and then others commented.
by vickcat180 (see profile) 03/29/10

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

In 1999, my family and I returned to Seattle after two years spent living in northern Italy. I found I missed food; I missed being around people who celebrated the creation of even the simplest of meals - and so I took a cooking class. The first night we killed crabs by hand. Now, I am the kind of person who takes spiders outside, and it shook me deeply. I had an image of a young mother and of the effect it might have on her, but her story didn't turn out at all the way I expected. And that got me thinking about all the different characters you could have in a class, wondering which foods would affect each one - revive a memory, create an epiphany, change the direction of a life - and how the lives of the characters could come together over the course of the class. In the end they created a community that surprised even me.

Book Club Recommendations

by SJenaiAppleBook (see profile) 10/30/17
This book was my book club choice and I facilitated the meeting. Because this is a book about cooking. I found two recipes out of my recipe collection that had similar ingredients to two dishes in the book. I used these as a handout at the meeting, which everyone loved.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Leah B. (see profile) 01/13/22

by Angie D. (see profile) 11/19/20

by Heather K. (see profile) 03/07/20

by Helen L. (see profile) 10/18/19

by Mj D. (see profile) 11/21/18

  "The School of Essential Ingredients"by Susan J. (see profile) 10/30/17

This was a delicious read! I love to cook and the descriptions of the food and preparations were absolutely brilliant. The description of the characters in and out of class was so beautifully written.... (read more)

by Donna B. (see profile) 06/10/17

  "School of essential ingredients"by Catherine P. (see profile) 06/09/17

I am not a foodie and do not like to cook. Couldn't get into this book! However, if you ARE a foodie and enjoy cooking, you will enjoy it.

  "The School of Essential Ingredients"by Michael R. (see profile) 05/27/17

I found it an easy book to read and enjoyable. The characters were well portrayed and I could relate to several of them

by Ann G. (see profile) 04/25/17

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