Friday, January 23, 2009

"The School of Essential Ingredients"

Erica Bauermeister is the co-author of 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader's Guide and Let's Hear It For the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14, and has taught literature and creative writing at the University of Washington.

She applied the Page 69 Test to The School of Essential Ingredients, her debut novel, and reported the following:
The School of Essential Ingredients follows the lives of eight students and their teacher in a cooking school set in a restaurant kitchen. One of the underlying themes of the novel is that ordinary, everyday things such as food have more influence upon us than we might at first realize. Baking a cake can be a lesson on marriage. The scent of fried sage can open a memory vault; making tortillas can instill confidence.

The book is a novel in stories – each student has their own chapter. What I find intriguing about this structure is the way connections form between the stories, the way the reader can see details and understand things about the characters that they may never know about each other. Page 69, from Carl’s story, seems on the surface to be a description of ordinary domestic life, a flashback to the early years of his marriage to Helen after they have moved from California to the rainy Pacific Northwest.

“Helen found ways to sneak summer into the dark months of the year, canning and freezing the fruit off their trees in July and August and using it extravagantly throughout the winter – apple chutney with the Thanksgiving turkey, raspberry sauce across the top of a December pound cake, blueberries in January pancakes. And she always claimed that the shorter winter days with their long stretches of cool, gray light were conducive to writing.” Carl has given her a desk for this purpose, which fits in a nook at the top of the stairs. “Helen always said, though, that she was a sprinter when it came to writing, composing in quick snatches at the kitchen table, in bed – although after the children arrived, the snatches of times occasionally were marathon distances apart.”

Ordinary details. Everyday things. And yet, it is in small moments perhaps more than large ones that marriages fail or succeed. “It all depends,” as Lillian the teacher says to a young student named Chloe, “on what happens when you do pay attention.”
Read an excerpt from The School of Essential Ingredients, and learn more about the book and author at Erica Bauermeister's website.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue