But we did, and following the success of our conversation with Nicole Kelby – author of White Truffles in Winter, we are delighted to introduce Erica Bauermeister the author of our February book choice – The School of Essential Ingredients. We took a selection of the questions that you, the Edible Book Club members, sent to us via email and Twitter and put them to Erica. Here are her responses.
Edible Books: Where did you learn about cooking to enable you to write about it so beautifully? Your descriptions of the food come across so well on the page that you can practically taste them.
Erica: We lived in Italy from 1997-1999. Before that point, I was ambivalent about food. I had grown up in a recipe-based household and cooking simply seemed like one more chance to do something right or wrong. Italy was a revelation — cooking there was a conversation among ingredients. My job as a cook was to listen and decide which ones went together. It opened up a whole new world to me — and I think that more intuitive attitude translated over to my writing, as well.
EB: One thing I’m always curious about is where the seed of the idea that developed into the novel came from. Did the idea naturally expand into the book? Or was it changed into something totally different by the time it was done?
Erica: When we returned from Italy I took a cooking class because I missed being around people who loved food. That first night we killed crabs with our bare hands. It was an intimate and shocking experience (I don’t even kill spiders), and there we all were, doing this among strangers. It seemed like such a strange situation and it made me wonder what would happen to a group of people if they stayed together for a period of time, doing that intimate activity of cooking. What would happen to their relationships? And what would be the food that would affect each one, take them to the next place they needed to go in their life, just the way killing the crabs did for me? I like to say I was shocked into fiction – suddenly the structure for a novel just fell into my head: 8 students and their teacher in a cooking school that would last about 9 months. And while the characters came slowly over time, and some of them changed, the structure never did.
EB: Who taught you to cook?
Erica: I learned by watching Italians in their homes, and taking a class from an Italian matron. She was great, and grumpy — she really didn’t want us to use recipes, but she had to write them down for the class so she did everything she could to subvert the process. She wrote in complicated Italian, used grams instead of ounces or cups. She basically forced us to experiment.
EB: Did a person in your life inspire each character?
Erica: No. I never write fictional characters based on people I know – it doesn’t seem fair to the real people or the character. And in the end, I can go so much farther with a character who is only themselves. If they were based on someone I knew I might feel constrained by reality.
EB: What is your favorite recipe from the book?
Erica: One of my favorite things in the world is cooking pasta sauces — that slow simmering, the way the smell travels through the house and greets people as they come home. It just means family to me. And btw — if you haven’t found them yet, there are recipes hidden on my website:
EB: What are a few of your favorite books? Especially any food-themed books you have really enjoyed!
Erica: Yum. Great question. Here are some favorite food books, in no particular order…
- Chocolat — Joanne Harris (don’t confuse it with the movie. The book is much, much better)
- Garlic and Sapphires — Ruth Reichl
- The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake — Aimee Bender
- The Art of Eating — MFK Fisher
- The Natural History of the Senses — Diane Ackerman (ok, that’s not technically about food, but you sure will enjoy food and cooking more after you read that book!)
You can find a longer list of my favorite books here:
Our thanks to Erica Bauermeister for taking the time to answer questions for our Edible Books community! Her new book, The Lost Art of Mixing, is a sequel to our February book, The School of Essential Ingredients.