If you are a foodie you will love "The School of Essential Ingredients" by Erica Baumeister. Even if you aren't a foodie but just appreciate good food, you will still love it.
Different chapters of the book tell the stories of the eight people who have signed up to attend a Monday night cooking class at a restaurant named Lillian's. There's harried young mother Claire; Tom, who has lost his soul mate to cancer; Antonia, a kitchen designer originally from Italy; married couple Helen and Carl; Isabella, an older lady who fears she is losing her memory; clumsy teenage Chloe; and reluctant Ian, whose mother gave him a gift certificate for the classes. We also learn about Lillian, the restaurant owner, herself.
Most of the students already know how to cook, but Lillian teaches them how to really appreciate food. "As a sensualist, your ingredients are your first priority," Lillian remarked, holding up the bottle of thick green olive oil. "Beautiful, luscious ingredients will color the atmosphere of a meal, as will those which are mean and cheap."
Their lessons include how to make the perfect cake, crab in a wine sauce, pasta with red sauce, handmade tortillas and salsa, a Valentine's dinner of cheese fondue, and a superb Thanksgiving dinner which I wish I had been invited to attend: Pumpkin ravioli; stuffed turkey breast with rosemary, cranberries and pancetta; polenta with gorgonzola; green beans with lemons and pine nuts; espresso with chocolate biscotti.
"The pace was leisurely as each person at the table took slow contemplative bites. The turkey lay in slices across their plates, palest pink, with spirals of herb and pancetta ribbons running through it. The polenta was a bright dash of color, the crisp tang of green beans and lemon a contrast to the soft, luxuriant texture of the warm cornmeal."
Over the months we see the students blending into a cohesive group much like the ingredients they employ. There are flashbacks of Helen and Carl's long marriage and several romantic entanglements and dis-entanglements that I won't spoil by revealing who ends up with whom.
I thought several of the story lines were wrapped up all too swiftly and a little too neatly. And I thought it ridiculous that Lillian could bring her mother out of depression solely with food, no matter how tantalizing it may have been.
However, it doesn't really matter, for the main enjoyment of the book comes from the description of the foods. Bauermeister, like Lillian, obviously has a sensual relationship with food, from choosing the basic ingredients, to preparing it, to eating it.
For example: "The hard, round cake of chocolate was wrapped in yellow plastic with red stripes, shiny and dark when she opened it. The chocolate made a rough sound as it brushed across the fine section of the grater, falling in soft clouds onto the counter, releasing a scent of dusty back rooms filled with bitter sweet chocolate and old love letters, the bottom drawers of antique desks and the last leaves of autumn, almonds, cinnamon and sugar."
"The sugar met and mingled with the butter, each drawing color and texture from the other, expanding, softening, lifting up the sides of the bowl in silken waves. Minutes passed, and still Lillian waited. Finally when the butter and sugar reached the cloud like consistency of whipped cream, she turned off the motor."
"Claire...lifted the crab to her mouth, closing her eyes one more time, shutting out the room around her. The meat touched her tongue and the taste ran through her, full and rich and complicated, dense as a long, deep kiss. She took another bite and felt her feet settle into the floor and the rest of her flow into a river of ginger and garlic and lemon and wine. She stood, even when that bite, and the next and the next were gone, feeling the river wind its way to her fingers, her toes, her belly, the base of her spine, melting all the pieces of her into something warm and golden. She breathed in, and that one, quiet moment felt herself come back together again."
You've got the picture. This review must end now, for I am drooling on my keyboard and I must go find something sensuous to eat.
(P. S. This book is titled "The Monday Night Cooking School" in England.)