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Powell's Q&A

Erica Bauermeister

Describe your latest project.
The School of Essential Ingredients is a novel that follows the lives of eight students and Lillian, their cooking teacher, in a class set in a restaurant kitchen. Among the students 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. Over time, the paths of the students mingle and intertwine, while the essence of Lillian’s cooking expands beyond the restaurant and into the secret corners of their lives with results that are often unexpected.

  1. The School of Essential Ingredients
    $7.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[A] remarkable debut....Delivering memorable story lines and characters while seducing the senses, Bauermeister's tale of food and hope is certain to satisfy." Publishers Weekly

    "Each section of this tasty novel tells the story of a different character. The effect is a series of pearl-like vignettes stretched out along a narrative string." Booklist


What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
When I was working my way through college, I was a waitress at a restaurant called Steak and Ale. It required an outfit that could best be described as old-time English barmaid meets Hooters — black stockings, a (very) short (full) red skirt, a low-necked peasant blouse, and a headpiece that could have doubled as a shower cap. I am tall, thin, and flat; I looked like a red flamingo. The tips were good, though.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false?
I find I am able to say things in fiction that I could never say out loud; I can explore an idea that might be at the very depths of my mind through a character who is nothing like me. Is that lying? Or is that finding a way to be a more truthful person through your imagination?

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.

My memories are not books. They are only stories I have been over so many times in my head that I don't know from one day to the next what’s remembered and what's made up. Like when you memorize a poem, and for one small unimportant part you supply your own words. The meaning's the same, the meter’s identical. When you read the actual version you can never get it into your head that it’s right and you're wrong. What I give you is the day's edition. Tomorrow it may be different.
—from The Giant's House: A Romance by Elizabeth McCracken

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
Trader Joe's chocolate croissants. I realize how that sounds; you take the box out of the freezer, after all. But you leave them out overnight and they rise up, all soft and hopeful, and when you pull them out of the oven they are crunchy and melting and they taste like France while you are still sitting in your own house in your bathrobe.

What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
There was a late August evening in San Gimignano, the air soft, the day-tourists gone. My husband and children and I walked through town among all those haunting towers and found a four-table restaurant tucked into a side street. I ordered butternut squash ravioli. At the first bite, the entire world slowed. The fact that I could probably never recreate the experience is perhaps the most and least important thing about it.

Why do you write?
Because I can't sing.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
Christopher Alexander, because his Timeless Way of Building took me into a fascinating world where the subliminal effects of architecture are given their rightful importance. Alice Waters, because she makes art out of eating. Vermeer, because the light in his paintings breaks and heals my heart at the same time.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Favorite Books about Food and Eating

I spent a lot of time in the last six years while I was writing The School of Essential Ingredients reading and thinking about food. M. F. K. Fisher and Ruth Reichl's books make reading feel like sensual, sinful eating. A Natural History of the Senses, while not technically a "food book," is a revelation of the senses. Joanne Harris wrote a lovely book in Chocolat, and it should never be confused with the movie, no matter how strong your attraction to Johnny Depp may be. And The Food of Love is just plain fun, which food should be sometimes — the true test appears to be if you can get past the traditional Roman dinner. (I won't tell you what it's made out of.)

The Art of Eating by M. F. K. Fisher

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

The Food of Love by Anthony Capella

÷ ÷ ÷

Erica Bauermeister's love of slow food and slow life was cemented by her two years of living in northern Italy with her husband and children. She has taught literature and creative writing at the University of Washington and currently lives in Seattle with her family. The School of Essential Ingredients is her first novel.

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