When was the last time a savory stew silenced those around your table, quickened taste buds, enveloped everyone within delicious communion? When time stopped? Perhaps a special occasion, or even better, an ordinary one?

Lillian, the hostess/chef in novelist Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients, 2009, provides such fare to eight students, Monday nights, in her earthy restaurant piqued with aromas. Lavishly, she shares secrets from her 30-year cooking history, engages her diffident helpers grouped around her work-table, in food preparation and relationships. In both, the chemistry works; the parallels between stirring, baking, simmering, waiting, adding fresh ingredients, are unmistakable, as the fall season morphs into the return of cherry blossoms outside Lillian’s restaurant.

We watch young widower Tom taste new life; slightly demented Isabelle again relish memories; the new mother Claire, referring to herself as a “bundling board,” savor her sense of woman; emotionally splayed Chloe, a teenager, stirred into Lillian’s kitchen as an apprentice; Ian and Antonia pair off; and old-timers Helen and Carl season their marriage with new spices.

Such transformations call to mind other stories of feeding. The Roman Ovid tells one about Baucis, the dirt-poor elderly wife of Philemon, who set steamed cabbage and bacon, roasted eggs, radishes, olives, and water-wine before Jupiter and Mercury, disguised as weary travelers. She and her husband are richly rewarded.

Then in the Hebrew scriptures the prophet Isaiah foretells the Messianic banquet on Mount Zion in chapter 25: 6-8. And the evangelist Luke in the Christian scriptures superimposes the Eucharistic banquet over the ancient Passover meal of the Israelites, as found in chapter 22: 14-20.

Who is behind all these feedings, so critical to life? So the mystery remains …


School of Essential Ingredients