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Delicate, Fortifying Flavors

Fill Jim Crace's The Devil's Larder

Jim Crace offers up 64 tasty little tales, musing on the nature of food and eating, and all that those activities engender. The slim collection doesn't feature a story more than six pages long, but each boasts a unique take on the theme of digestion, consumption, location or offering of food and drink.

Crace's stories read less like fiction and more parables. Characters rarely have proper names, as they exist so wholly and in so few pages. Perspectives on morality and human nature abound, yet aren't served with judgement. Instead, through an economy of diction combined with an elegance of tone, Crace underscores the vaguaries of human nature through lessons on how we treat food.

That which sustains us bodily is shown to give more by way of nourishment for the mind and soul. Crace sidesteps the morass of moralizing by cagily imbuing each tale with some surprising element. Predictably, there are stories involving grandmothers, pies and kitchen myths populated by sprites with an appetite for bread dough.

More innovative, however, is the way Crace maintains the irrelevance of time and place through the thrall of his stories. By achieving a depth of detail in a matter of sentences, Crace lets us be content to know where we are reading of based upon the foodstuffs and characters we encounter.

A cheekily described restaurant called "Air and Light," serving up nothing as a statement on the gluttony of consumption could be found in our neighboring Berkeley. The man who recalls his hometown tradition of spitting grapeseeds instead of blowing out candles on his birthday could be musing and hocking his year's wishes into the bricklined alleyway of a Brooklyn apartment building.

Crace's gift is to occupy us with the phenomena or miracle of food he describes enough to keep us from questioning him. As he ably explains in one eight-line episode: "Spitting in the omelet is a fine revenge. Or overloading it with pepper. But take care not to masturbate into the mix ... the eggs got pregnant.... When he heated them, they grew and grew ... until they could outwit him ... by leaping from the pan with their half-wings and running down the lane like boys."

The juxtaposition of the surprising and the tradtitional keeps each of Crace's numbered portions fresh with meaning. Crace's audacity amuses as it tells a greater truth, as when his narrator opens a story of the schoolgirls he commissions to find clams by stating, "I am a pimp of sorts." The resonance only increases when the girls' teacher enters the tale to prove that the salt he tells his fleet to scatter could be replaced with any common substitute, and proves so by lifting her skirts to piss all over the sand, thereby luring more clams to the sand's surface.

Sweeter still are the stories touching upon the less upstanding elements of the human experience. Crace is at his best when he spins well-appointed stories in which people betray food as sustenance by letting it be the vehicle for their bad behavior. A chef working at a bed and breakfast on a highway route routinely comps unruly guests plates of bad mussels, ensuring they suffer and stay at the hotel where he toils. A woman with a food allergy, seeking to avoid the funeral of the sister she despised, calmly purchases, prepares and ingests the offending foodstuffs to rationalize her absence from the service due to illness. While she could have gotten away with phoning her regrets, she yearns for the sensation of suffering brought on by her meal to absolve her for not wanting to attend the gathering.

Threaded throughout Crace's stories is the unifying theme of not only what we eat and how, but also of the ways food makes us honest. From the most mythical of his stories to the most mundane, on either end of the process of eating, as with birth and death, Crace proves that the stuff with which we sustain ourselves is that which keeps us honest, even within the petty deceptions and wide repast of blame we so often assign to it.

The Devil's Larder
By Jim Crace
Hardcover - 165 pages (October 2001)
Farrar Straus & Giroux; ISBN: 0374138591