Jim Crace’s 2001 book The Devil’s Larder is a collection of 64 very short stories centering on food.
There are stories here about strip fondue and about a waiter who can sing the names of all 90 pastas in alphabetical order. About an amen egg (timed by singing the 37th hymn) and about pot brownies that may have eased a condemned man’s transition from this world.
One story focuses on the conundrum of being marooned on a raft in the middle of the ocean and having to choose between drinking salt water or one’s own urine. Another tells of Air and Light, a restaurant that serves only air and light.
A mental itch
Crace is a subtle writer, and these tight tales are poetic and often wry. They leave behind a mental itch that you can’t help scratching. Consider these examples:
• A kitchen mystery: “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.” (story #1)
• A ritual of atonement through grape seeds: “On birthdays in our village on the estuary, where spitting was as commonplace as fish, we had a sweet observance for children. We didn’t blow out candles on the cake. Instead,…we spit the past year out….We expectorated all our vices, errors and misdeeds so that our coming year could start anew.” (story #35)
• A grandmother’s playfulness: “What’s for dinner? Pig’s cheese. Always the same reply. And what’s for pudding? Buttered stones and acorns. And what’s to drink? Chicken milk….And what would make our feast on Christmas Day? Always the same reply. Sheep wings.” (story #53)
• A doctor reacts to a widow who sprinkled her husband’s ashes on her food: “I’ll say to you exactly what I’ve told the other women, you can’t eat grief…You have to let grief eat you. You have to let the sorrow swallow you.” (story #22)
• Three cases of “sexually transmitted indigestion”: “After she had caught food poisoning from the soft cheese in the cafeteria (but before any of the symptoms had appeared), she had made love to her boyfriend and then to an old acquaintance she’d encountered entirely by chance, and then had kissed (though only playfully, but using tongues) her special friend in her local bar, a homosexual man, in fact.” (story #19)
• The devil in the woods at night: “He’s there, we’re told, to plant the mushrooms that he’s raised In hell, where there’s no light to green them, so that the gatherers who come a dawn, against the wisdoms of the countryside, can satisfy their appetites for sickeners or conjurers or fungi smelling of dead flesh and tasting of nothing when they’re cooked…He lets them breakfast on his spite.” (story #54)
Crace is the author of several novels that take on human existence from odd perspectives and that journey down untraveled roads, e.g., Being Dead, an account of two human bodies decaying. So it’s hardly a shock that many of Crace’s stories in The Devil’s Larder have to do with the use of food to settle scores or otherwise exact cruelty on another.
The ultimate example is story #55 about the chef of the Yellow Basket restaurant.
A politician comes in with a women who is not his wife and complains about the food, so the chef serves them a dish of mussels on the house. Well, the mussels aren’t exactly fresh, and, instead of spending the afternoon together in a hotel bed, the politician and his paramour fight for access to the bathroom.
The chef is so pleased with this that he employs the trick on every pompous complainer at the restaurant — or, well, on anyone he takes a fancy against.
And not only the chef. But the whole town as well.
The narrator, a town resident and frequent customer at the restaurant, provides a partial list of those who have been given “the chef’s apology,” including a banker, a family of five with messy children and the gastronomic writer from the New York Times magazine.
It was as if we’d made these strangers pregnant. They’d gone away with our dull, revengeful town inside…
We do not like to stare, of course, but it is hard to resist a sideways look from time to time. We want to see the empty shells pile up….
But best of all is on the street, when the driver of too large a car, or the possessor of an accent we don’t like or merely someone who appears too fortunate enquires…It is a duty and a joy to point and say, “The Yellow Basket….The mussels are quite good, I hear. Bon appetit.”
Patrick T. Reardon