Food as fantasy, food as fact, food as metaphor, food as motive food is inextricable from fiction, even in ordinary life, and Jim Crace's vision is anything but ordinary. The Devil's Larder, a collection of 60 fables, character sketches and occasionally short-short stories, has as its unifying theme only the presence of some sort of food in each piece, whether as a primary urge, a sensual indulgence or emotional amelioration.
A refugee working as a night bus girl in a hotel learns a little English, and more desire, by tasting the remnants of the room service trays and glasses left by the mysterious strangers, especially the man who occupies Suite 17 every Tuesday. Dreaming of stepping into his world, she practices vocabulary with all the items she can name: dressed prawns, Jack Daniel's, chowder, salt, a single glass of white wine, champagne. Club sandwich comes out almost perfectly. Crace is widely admired as a writer's writer, and this little book of what are called, rather haphazardly, short fictions, suggests a notebook left by the bed and filled with the odd impressions that come into the imagination in the dark hours. As brief as a few paragraphs, at most a few pages, they employ not so much a magical realism as a feverish, dreamy surrealism. An old man argues that just as great wines seem to hold the ghost of summer's fruit, vegetables and fruits could be coaxed into releasing their remembered sunlight, and in search of the catalyst, he wanders the town on winter nights, an orange gripped in each of his blue hands. Crace's eye for the detail is acute and sensual: The enamelled [mackerel] skins pulled off like paper. He dabbles in the epigrammatic: It's said that cheese is milk that's grown up. And he can skewer the self-satisfied with the sharpest of knives, as in the story of the woman who, publicly humiliated by her old-fashioned husband for having lunch with friends, keeps his place set after his death. Such are the joys of widowhood. Again I dine. Again my husband goes without. Who does not recognize the town that, to show its charity to a family of refugees, collects such foods as fit the donor's bill, not the needy family's: The dieting woman gives away cans of syrupy fruit, others clear out stale pasta, flavorless cereal, sprouting onions, dried beans, sour yogurt, tins with unreadable labels, a child's attempt at fig cake. A photograph of the charitable effort makes the town look generous, not counting all the problems solved, and all the larders tidied up at last, the daughters satisfied, the heartburns eased, the diets honoured, the separations finalized, and the blunders of the past concealed as gifts. Several of the more complete fictions have appeared in The New Yorker, including the one about the long-haired baker's son who adds spiked brownies to condemned prisoners' final meals. Some entries are simply witty observations, such as the eight-paragraph anecdote about the wholesaler who gets rid of a consignment of kumquats by marketing them as pygmy oranges, and when the subsequent craze for kumquats exhausts his store, pulls out the oranges and markets them as kingquats. Others are not even sketches, just notebook entries, like the one (which begs to be nurtured into a full-grown character) of the former waiter whose tip-drawing trick had been to sing out the names of all the ninety types of pastas, in alphabetical order, in less than three minutes, from angel hair to ziti. Now a bank employee, he still goes through the list on his way to work, though he makes it only through cannelloni, cappelletti, cavatelli, conchiglie before the tram arrives. Even fragmentary as it is, the story, well, sings.
Choosing a companion ChardonnayThe fragmentary, fantastic nature of The Devil's Larder makes it to me the best sort of evening reading, something to dabble in before cooking, or in a hammock in the late sun. With it try a wine of similar complexity and shifting color, the 1999 Santa Julia (say Hoo-lia) Vineyards Chardonnay Reserva. This Argentine white from the fecund Mendoza County comes as close as any to the perfect $10 chard, a glistening deep honey gold wine that dips through layers of melon, caramel and honey nougat and slowly opens into very ripe mango. A true New World Chardonnay, it has strong oaky bottom and only the slightest citrus, just enough to keep from cloying. (Fans of the more austere Old World style chardonnays may prefer the non-reserve Santa Julia, currently in the 2000 release, which is equally startling at about $7.)Eve Zibart is the restaurant critic for the Weekend section of The Washington Post and author of The Ethnic Food Lover's Companion.