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The School of Essential Ingredients is a gem of a book and one I know I will read again in the future. (Read my review here) I’m thrilled to welcome author Erica Bauermeister to Diary of an Eccentric today to answer a few questions.

The School of Essential Ingredients gives new meaning to the term “comfort food.” What is your favorite comfort food?

I think comfort food is different for each person. For my son, Annie’s boxed macaroni and cheese meant home when he was a child. When we moved to Italy in 1997, we actually took the flavor packets out of the boxes and packed them in our suitcases. We felt a little silly, but it eased the transition for a homesick seven year old.

As for me, comfort food will always be part-preparation, part-eating. In Seattle, it gets dark early in the evenings in the winter, and at the end of a hectic day one of my favorite things to do is to make risotto, standing at the stove, stirring the chicken broth into the rice, smelling the salt and starch and butter and sauteed onions, listening to my family talking at the kitchen table. Lillian’s experience with the mashed potatoes in The School of Essential Ingredients comes from that feeling.

Lillian prepares numerous dishes with the class throughout the book. Are these dishes you created?

Some of the dishes – the roasted crab, the pasta sauce, Antonia’s Thanksgiving dinner – are variations on dishes I learned in two different cooking classes, one in Seattle and the other in the Napa Valley of California. Others were ideas I picked up from friends, magazines, and cookbooks and then played with. There was a lot of kitchen experimenting, though, because I wanted to feel that in the end the dishes were Lillian’s and that I had been true to her approach to cooking.

How did the characters in The School of Essential Ingredients come about? Do you have a favorite? There is much diversity in the characters and their experiences, and by the time I finished the book, I loved each of them–flaws and all!

Ahhh…. favorites. You know, something I promised myself when I was writing this book was that I would never write a character I couldn’t feel compassion for. Part of what made the writing so interesting was putting myself into the shoes of all these different people – trying to see a marriage from both sides, trying to understand what it’s like to be a foreigner in the United States, or to lose your spouse, or to need precision in order to feel safe. But if I had to choose a favorite it would be Isabelle. Perhaps because I feel protective of her, perhaps because one of the reasons I wrote her was to understand better what my father was going through as his own brilliant mind faded.

Something I have found intriguing since the book was published, however, is how people respond to the characters. So many have a favorite and it’s almost always different from person to person. But at this point every character has been someone’s favorite – and I know that would make them all happy.

How long did it take to write the book?

I started the book when we returned from Italy in 1999; I took a cooking class and got the inspiration. So, off and on, it has taken almost ten years. But that time included raising children, renovating a house (filled with six and a half tons of trash), writing about the house (no, that wasn’t published), doing real estate for five years to build up the kids’ college funds – and all the etc that makes up a mother’s life. I like to think that the detours created a better book – at the very least, I know the book was radically different in the end than when I started writing it at the age of 40.

Do you have a special place where you write?

I’m writing from there right now. It’s the house we renovated, in a Victorian seaport called Port Townsend about two hours outside of Seattle. It’s an old four-square-style house, up on a hill, looking out over the town to the water. In the winter, the winds come blasting right at you and it feels as if you are in the crow’s nest of a ship. When I am out here, my job is to write.

But it’s not the house that’s important, it’s the mind-set. This house had renters in it during the time I was writing The School of Essential Ingredients. That book was written in Seattle, in coffee shops and in bed, at the kitchen table on weekend mornings while everyone else was still asleep. What was important was that in those places, during those times, I thought of myself as a writer first.

Are you working on another book right now?

Yup. Unless I am stalling by answering more interesting questions. 🙂

Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists with regard to the craft itself and publication?

For a while there, I wrote for money and renovated houses for free. And I realized that writing for money was changing how I wrote, and not in a good way. At one point I thought – what if I do houses for money and write for free? How would I write then? So I did real estate. In the process, I learned an amazing amount about people and took all the restrictions off my writing. That was a good choice for me, even if it took me longer to get the book finished.

But really, I think every writer needs to do what feels right for them. You don’t HAVE to get up every morning at 5 a.m. and not leave your seat until you have 2,000 words (lord knows I don’t). There are many days when I know my writing will be much better served by running errands, or cooking, or getting my hands in dirt. I write a lot when I am walking (my new favorite toy is a dictaphone, which saves me from stopping in the middle of the street to write down a thought). But if you ARE one of those writers who thrives on structure, then claim it. Tell your husband to walk the dog. Let the kids do the dishes. Shut the door (of the closet, if that’s what it takes – that’s where Sara Gruen wrote Water for Elephants) and write.

Thanks, Erica, for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions. I wish you much success, and I can’t wait for your next book to be published!

Disclosure: I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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‘My sweet lawyer,’ she said, her voice deep and slow as the bottom of a river. ‘I don’t think you have a choice.’ She paused, and took another sip of wine. ‘We’re all just ingredients, Tom. What matters is the grace with which you cook the meal.’

(from The School of Essential Ingredients, page 130)

The School of Essential Ingredients has made my list of all-time favorite books. This is a story to be savored, yet it begs to be devoured in one sitting. Erica Bauermeister’s first novel is the story of Lillian, a restaurant owner who learned to cook as a child when her father left and her mother used books to escape what her life had become. Each chapter focuses on a member of the latest session of Lillian’s cooking class, The School of Essential Ingredients: Claire, a young wife and mother whose identity seems lost within her family; Carl and Helen, a husband and wife renewed in the face of betrayal; Tom, a lawyer drowning in grief after the loss of his wife; Antonia, an Italian immigrant who knows the comforts of home; Isabelle, an older woman struggling with the early stages of Alzheimer’s; Ian, the son of a painter who turns to computers to satisfy his need for precision; and Chloe, a clumsy girl looking to find her place in the world. Lillian senses the needs of these individuals and shows them how to heal and to find love or themselves through cooking, and for Lillian, cooking is about smells and textures and emotions–not recipes.

Bauermeister is a master of words, using simple sentences with descriptions so rich you can actually smell, feel, and taste the food along with whatever emotion the character is feeling. Only a little bit of time is spent on each character, but Bauermeister never wastes a single word so the reader is left full and satisfied. (Satisfied with the story anyway…This book made me so hungry!) Nearly every page features sensual descriptions of food–the aroma of spices, the silky texture of a cake batter–and they made me look at ingredients differently and recognize their power to evoke emotions and repair wounds.

I’m always rummaging through cupboards and creating new recipes, though nothing as fancy as in the book. I think my love of food and willingness to experiment in the kitchen enhanced my enjoyment of the book, but the beauty of Bauermeister’s writing, the realistic characters, and the strength of each of their stories taken as a whole make The School of Essential Ingredients an all-around must-read.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of The School of Essential Ingredients from Putnam/Penguin for review purposes as part of a MotherTalk blog tour. I also received a $20 Amazon gift card from MotherTalk for my participation in the tour. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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