A sumptuous, scintillating stew of sixty four short fictions about appetite, food, and the objects of our desire
All great meals, it has been said, lead to discussions of either sex or death, and The Devil's Larder, in typical Cracean fashion, leads to both. Here are sixty four short fictions of at times Joycean beauty--about schoolgirls hunting for razor clams in the strand; or searching for soup-stones to take out the fishiness of fish but to preserve the flavor of the sea; or about a mother and daughter tasting food in one another's mouth to see if people really do taste things differently--and at other times, of Mephistophelean mischief: about the woman who seasoned her food with the remains of her cremated cat, and later, her husband, only to hear a voice singing from her stomach (you can't swallow grief, she was advised); or the restaurant known as "The Air&Light," the place to be in this small coastal town that serves as the backdrop for Crace's gastronomic flights of fancy, but where no food or beverage is actually served, though a 12 percent surcharge is imposed just for just sitting there and being seen.
Food for thought in the best sense of the term, The Devil's Larder is another delectable work of fiction by a 2001 winner of The National Book Critics Circle Award.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
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About the Author
Jim Crace is the author, most recently, of Quarantine, which won the 1997 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Being Dead, which was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2000. His novels have been translated into fourteen languages. He lives in Birmingham, England.
Jim Crace is the author of many novels, including Quarantine, which won the 1997 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize for Fiction. His novels have been translated into eighteen languages. He lives with his wife and children in Birmingham, England.
Read an Excerpt
Someone has taken off — and lost — the label on the can. There are two glassy lines of glue with just a trace of stripped paper where the label was attached. The can's batch number — RG2JD 19547 — is embossed on one of the ends. Top or bottom end? No one can tell what's up or down. The metal isn't very old.
They do not like to throw it out. It might be salmon — not cheap. Or tuna steaks. Or rings of syruped pineapple. Too good to waste. Guava halves. Lychees. Leek soup. Skinned Italian plum tomatoes. Of course, they ought to open up the can and have a look, and eat the contents there and then. Or plan a meal around it. It must be something that they like, or used to like. It's in their larder. It had a label once. They chose it in the shop.
They shake the can up against their ears. They sniff at it. They compare it with the other cans inside the larder to find a match in size and shape. But still they cannot tell if it is beans or fruit or fish. They are like children with unopened birthday gifts. Will they be disappointed when they open up the can? Will it be what they want? Sometimes their humour is macabre: the contents are beyond description — baby flesh, sliced fingers, dog waste, worms, the venom of a hundred mambas — and that is why there is no label.
One night when there are guests and all the wine has gone, they put the can into the candlelight amongst the debris of their meal and play the guessing game. An aphrodisiac, perhaps; "Let's try." A plague. Should they open up and spoon it out? A tune, canned music, something never heard before that would rise from the open can, evaporate, and not be heard again. The elixir of youth. The human soup of DNA. A devil or a god?
It's tempting just to stab it with a knife. Wound it. See how it bleeds. What is the colour of the blood? What is its taste?
We all should have a can like this. Let it rust. Let the rims turn rough and brown. Lift it up and shake it if you want. Shake its sweetness or its bitterness. Agitate the juicy heaviness within. The gravy heaviness. The brine, the soup, the oil, the sauce. The heaviness. The choice is wounding it with knives, or never touching it again.
"This is for the angel," Grandma used to say, tearing off a strip of dough for me to take into the yard. "Leave it somewhere he can see." Sometimes I left the strip on the street wall. Sometimes I draped it on the washing line. Sometimes I put it on the outside windowsill and hid behind the kitchen curtain beads to spot the angel in the yard.
Grandma said I wouldn't catch him eating the dough. "That's only greedy birds," she explained. "The angel comes to kiss it, that's all, otherwise my bread won't rise." And sure enough, I often saw the birds come down to peck at our strip of dough. And sure enough, my grandma's bread would nearly always rise. When it didn't she would say the birds had eaten the strip of dough before the angel had had a chance to prove it with his kisses.
But I never saw an angel on the windowsill. Not even once.
The thought of angels in the yard terrified my girls, and so when we made bread — in that same house, but thirty years along the line and Grandma long since gone to kiss the angels herself — I used to say, "To make good bread I need an angel in the kitchen. Who'll be the angel today and kiss the dough?" My girls would race to kiss the dough. I'll not forget the smudge of flour on their lips. Or how, when I had taken the scarred and toppling loaves of bread out of the oven, they'd demand a strip of hot crust to dip into the honey pot or wipe around the corners of the pate jar. This was their angel pay. This was their reward for kissing.
Now there are no angels in the kitchen. I'm the grandma and the girls are living far too far away to visit me more than once or twice a year. I'm too stiff and out of sorts to visit them myself unless I'm taken in a car, but I don't like to ask. I stay in touch with everyone by phone. I keep as busy as I can. I clean, although the house is far too large for me. I walk when it is warm and dry down to the port and to the shops and take a taxi back. I keep plants in the yard in pots and on the windowsills. I mostly eat out of a can or frozen meals or packet soups.
This afternoon I thought I'd fill my time by making bread. My old wrists ache with tugging at the dough of what, I think, will have to be my final loaves. I tore a strip off for good luck, kissed it, put it on the windowsill. I warmed the oven, greased the tins, and put the dough to cook on the highest shelf. Now I'm waiting at the window, with a smudge of flour on my lips and with the smell of baking bread rising through the house, for the yard to fill and darken with the shadows and the wings.
No one is really sure exactly where the restaurant might be, though everyone's agreed that the walk to reach it is clandestine and punishing but hardly beautiful. There will be hills and scooping clouds and sulphur pools to menace us. A ridge of little Soufrières will belch its heavy, eggy breath across our route. Our eyes will run. Our chests will heave. We'll sneeze and stumble, semi-blind, with nothing but the occasional blue-marked tree trunk to guide us on our way.
But still we want to risk the walk. The restaurant's reputation is enough to get us out of bed at dawn. We have to be there by midday if we want to get back safely in the light. The five of us, five men, five strangers united by a single appetite.
We take the little taxi to where the boulder track is beaten to a halt by the river, and then we wade into the water and the trees. We're wading too, of course, into the dark side of ourselves, the hungry side that knows no boundaries. The atmosphere is sexual. We're in the brothel's waiting room. The menu's yet to be paraded. We do not speak. We simply wade and hike and climb. We are aroused.
The restaurant is like a thousand restaurants in this part of the world: a wooden lodge with an open veranda, and terraces with smoky views across the canopy towards the coast. There is a dog to greet us and voices from a radio. An off-track motorbike is leaning against a mesh of logs. But none of the twenty tables, with their cane chairs, are as yet occupied. We are, it seems, the only visitors.
We stand and wait. We cough. We stamp on the veranda floor, but it is not until the Austrian, weary and impatient, claps his hands that anybody comes. A woman and a boy too young to be her son. She is well dressed, with heavy jewellery. We would have liked it better if the waiter were a man.
She has bush meats, as we'd expect, she says. Some snake which she'll kebab for us, some poacher's treats like mountain cat, and dried strips of any flesh or glands we'd dare to name. She has, she says, though it's expensive, parrot meat from a species that is virtually extinct.
What else? To start, hors d'oeuvres — she has soft-bodied spiders, swag beetles, forest roaches which taste (according to one of our number) "like mushrooms with a hint of Gorgonzola cheese." To drink? She offers juice or cans of beer or water flavoured in some unexpected ways.
But we have come — as well she knows — not for these rare dishes but for Curry No. 3 — the menu's hottest offering, the fetish of the hill. Back in the town, if Curry No. 2 appears on menus, then it's clearly understood that mountain chicken is on offer, that's to say, it's curried cuissards of frog. But we are seeking something more extreme than frog, something prehistoric, hardcore, dangerous, something disallowed where we come from. We mean, at last, to cross the barriers of taste.
So she will bring us Curry No. 3 in her good time. It isn't done to ask what she will use for meat, although the boy is eyeing us and could be bribed, with cigarettes, to talk. We simply have to take our chances. There might be lizard in the pot or some unlisted insect, in no book. We are prepared for monkey, rat, or dog. Offal is a possibility, a rare and testing part we've never had before, some esoteric organ stained yellow in the turmeric. Tree shark, perhaps. Iguana eggs. Bat meat. Placenta. Brain. We are bound to contemplate, as well, the child who went astray at the weekend, the old man who has disappeared and is not missed, or the tourist who never made it back to her hotel; the sacrificed, the stillborn, and the cadavers, the unaccounted for.
And we are bound to contemplate the short fulfillment we will feel and then the sated discontent that's bound to follow it, that's bound to come with us when we, well fed, begin descending to the coast, not in a group, but strung out, five weary penitents, weighed down by our depravities, beset by sulphur clouds, and driven on by little more than stumbling gravity.
How silent the forest is, now that our senses have been dulled by food. How careless we've become as we devour the path back to the river and the road. How tired and spent. We are fair game for any passing dogs or snakes. Those flies and wasps are free to dine on us. Those cadavers can rise up from the undergrowth and seize us by the legs if they so wish. For we're not hungry anymore. We found the path up to the restaurant and it was punishing.
Now I will tell you what to eat outdoors when it is dark. Cold foods will never do. The key to dining without light is steam. And cold food does not steam, excepting ice. No, you must warm the night about you with the steam of soup, a dozen foods in one. You cannot tell the carrots from the beans until you have them in your mouth. You cannot, even then, distinguish what is leek from what is onion.
The bowl should not be shallow, but deep and lipped so that what steam there is must curl and gather at the centre. The steam contains the smell. And so you warm your nose on smell, and warm your mouth on flavour, and warm your hands on bowl. You should, of course, be standing and your coat should have its collar up. You do not talk. There is no time. You have to finish what you have before the steam has gone.
Once you have finished, there is a chilling residue of steam. It cowers in the bowl. It dares not chance the darkness and the cold. And if you do not take your hands away, and if you press your face on to the rim, and if you close your eyes so tightly that your darkness is complete, the steam and smell will kiss your lips and lids and make you ready for the slow digestion of the night.
If those children had been mine I would have shouted out and stopped them. But they were strangers, only passing through, and I was irritated. So I stood and watched. They'd find out soon enough.
The family had pulled their car into my field, as if the farmland had been set aside for picnickers. Their mum and dad had spread their blankets in the shade of our horse pine with its inviting mattress of orange needles and sent the children off, across my land, to stretch their legs.
I've seen it all before, a dozen times. What child of five or six — as these two seemed to be — would not be drawn to our fine crab? In every way but one it is a grander tree, dramatic and more showy, than any of its sweeter apple cousins on the farm. That day, as he and she in all their innocence went hand in hand across the field, the fruit was at its best, in clumps as tightly packed as berry strigs and ripening unevenly on its crimson pedicels through all the blushing harvest colours, yellow and orange to purple-red.
My crab's a vagrant, seeded more than thirty years ago, by some rogue animal no doubt, and not put there as all the creaky grandads claim by a bolt of lightning souring ground where lovers from opposing villages were kissing. That's why the fruit is bitter, they say. And that explains the blush.
To these two youngsters, as they reached the crab, it must have seemed they'd found a magic tree, with all the warmer tints and shades of a paint box or Christmas coloured lights or some exaggerated textile print, and with such low branches that all they had to do was help themselves.
I watched them reach up to the lowest fruit and hesitate, a warning trapped behind my teeth. At first they touched but did not pick. This surely must be theft. Such tempting treats could not be free. Besides, they were not sure what kind of fruit it was. They'd not seen these on supermarket stands or in their gardens. Too small to be an apple, too large to be a rose hip. Too hard, despite its cone-like oval shape, to be a plum tomato. The open bases of the fruit were hairy and protruding like on a pomegranate. Yet these were clearly not pomegranates.
At last, they pulled the fruit down from the tree. Here was their perfect contribution to the family picnic. Their harvest would, they knew, be irresistible.
But first, of course, they each rubbed an apple against their clothes, to get a shine, and (almost at my silent prompting) tasted it. My mouth was watering. I saw the children shake their heads and spit. They'd never pass a crab again without their unforgetting mouths flooding with distaste.
I did not stay to watch their picnicking. There's always work to do. But I imagine that when they sat cross-legged on their fine blankets beneath the pine while Mum and Dad dished out a harmless meal from plastic containers, tinfoil and flasks, the children brought the food up to their mouths with just a touch of fear and half a glance towards the tree that had betrayed their hopes. Here was a lesson never to be forgotten, about false claims, and bitterness, and trespassing.
Sometimes, in a certain mood, I walk down to the bottom fences of my land where my ever-open gate onto the road gives access to picnickers and find myself a little sad that no small child is running full of hope across the field. Then the small child that still survives in me shoves me in the back. I walk across to taste the fruit of that one crab for myself. I never swallow any of the flesh, of course. I simply plunge my teeth into the tempting bitterness. Even after all these years — misled, misled, misled again — I like to test the flavours of deceit. And I still find myself surprised by its malicious impact in my mouth. It's bittersweet and treacherous, the kiss of lovers from opposing villages.
It was Monday, almost noon, and he still suffered from the aftermath of Sunday's garlic. Bad breath and a stinking conscience, too.
He walked about the offices as usual, distributing client folders and the gossip, leaning over colleagues at their desks. He noticed how their heads went back, an instant recoil from his face, his speech. He noticed how their hands went up to hide their mouths and noses. He noticed how they frowned at him.
Was there some unexpected tangent from his working life that touched the private circle of his friends? He racked his brains and found no link. They could not possibly have heard how badly he'd behaved the night before, how slyly and how grossly. They could not know what harm he'd done. No, the disapproval that his colleagues were so obviously displaying had to be intuitive, instinctive, from the heart. The evidence of his misdeeds was hanging round his shoulders like a heavy, garish shroud, he guessed. He shrugged it off. Raised his voice. Would not lose face.
Our Merchant Trading Club behind the warehouses is still better known to members as The Whistling Chop. Here's why. Soon after it was founded in the 1870s by the great- grandfather of our present mayor, the resident manager came out of his office one evening to find a waiter in the corridor carrying a tray of food. A not unusual sight. Except this waiter had gravy on his chin. The man had helped himself to some of the cut chicken breast intended for the members in the dining rooms. "Not only is this common theft," the manager said, "it's also unhygienic in the extreme. If the gentlemen had required dirty fingers in their meal, they would have ordered them. And had they wanted you to join them here for dinner, they would have had a card delivered to your home."
The waiter lost his job, of course. But sacking him was not enough for the club manager. He was a man who prided himself on his Systems. And clearly these were failing. How many waiters helped themselves to members' food, he wondered. How many meals were so diminished and defiled before they reached the tables? How could he put an end to it?
Excerpted from "The Devil's Larder"
Copyright © 2001 Jim Crace.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a book of 64 vignettes about food. But it's not simply about food, it's about the emotions that go along with the food and the complex issues surrounding the food. The style is lyrical and poetic, and subtle themes of all flavors are infused throughout it's pages. Jim Crace has done a fantastic job of making these short essays, more often then not, foreboding and dark. There are stories dealing with death and love, indifference and hate, and just about any human emotion that can be played out. There is more than one story about poisoning, accidental or otherwise. Some of the stories are only a few sentences long, but in those sentences he has packed an emotional range and vivacity that some authors can't seem to find even after hundreds of pages. Some of the stories are subtle and refined, others vulgar and coarse. The one thing that these stories all have in common is some relationship to food either direct or tangential.There are stories of a magic soup stone, it's granite flavoring hundreds of pots of stew and soup. Of cans missing labels that defy explanation of their contents. Tales of room service meals, and treachery played out in the form of sustenance. Stories of supernatural influences regarding food, and hungry nights out in the woods searching for anything that could be a meal. These stories have a rich feel, and many exotic ingredients pepper the pages: aubergines, morels and manac beans, razor clams, macaroons and a feast made of ingredients all of white. There are stories of fondue parties gone wrong, and stews made hearty with boiled leather. These stories are not for the touchy of stomach; they are a mash of devilish potency, spilling from the pages like verse.This is the perfect book to dip into and out of noncommittally. The stories are perfect for when you can only do a little reading at a time, or between chapters of another book. I read the book in its entirety, and it did not suffer for having not been digested in small bits. The book was enticing, while at the same time being slightly repulsing. There is so much inside this book alongside of food, mostly our complex relationships to the food and the feelings that food inspires in us.Though this was a strange book, and I have never read anything like it, it was pleasing and satisfying in it's own weird way. I had heard many things about it, and was eager to read it. Though it was short, it was unusually gratifying. I would recommend this book to those who are tired of the ordinary, and long for something that bites back.
I love Jim Crace - especially Quarantine, which is one of my favorite books. Devil's Larder, although a departure from Crace's novels, does not disappoint. The short (some very short)stories are inventive, entertaining, and deep all at once.