Home / Books / Continent (1986) / The Gift of Stones (1988) / Arcadia (1992) / Signals of Distress (1994) / Quarantine (1997) / Being Dead (1999) / The Devil’s Larder (2001) / Six (2003) / The Pesthouse (2007) / All That Follows (2010) / Harvest (2013)
The Devil’s Larder is a group of 64 fictional pieces of varying length, from paragraph-long reveries to short narratives, all on the subject of food.
According to the author, "This is not a simple collection of stories. It is what I call a cumulative novel, with each section contributing to a narrative world view in which the Food is not required to cater for our taste buds but to satisfy our imaginative appetites. This is a book about culture, our bodies, our sense of self rather than a mere assemblage of anecdotes or recipes. The tone is playful, literary and subversive throughout, rather like Calvino’s Invisible Cities but written with greater discipline and clarity. The main aim is to delight the reader, but there is a darker purpose to The Devil’s Larder. All its meals and recipes come laced with messages and meanings."
The idea of a ‘summary’ is probably inappropriate. The shelves of The Devil’s Larder are stocked with the ingredients for leather soup, blind pie, toxic pastries and mussels, as well as love potions and aphrodisiacs. One of the most common flavours, as one would expect, is sulphur: "the sulphur of a pigeon’s egg boiled in the sand" is evoked by the "sulphur in the nicotine" of the cigarettes the boys cadge from their uncle (31), the "five strangers united by a single appetite" (3) are beset by sulphur clouds on their way to the wooden lodge where "bush meat…snake…parrot…soft-bodied spiders, swag beetles, forest roaches" and the infamous Curry Number 3 are served. The story of a trendy restaurant serving only light and air (60) slyly deflates the faddishness of food culture. Several of the more poignant stories feature parent-child relationships: a mother teaches her daughter a recipe for a cake that will feed the world (38); a daughter, now grown old, remembers how her grandmother used to tear off a strip of dough to be placed in the garden for the angel to kiss (2); a mother tries every trick in the child-care book to persuade her daughters to eat her lovingly prepared meals, only to find that they are feeding off her anger (24).
Readers of Crace’s previous works, especially Quarantine and Being Dead, will recognise the nameless, precisely imagined town- and landscapes of The Devil’s Larder, the fauna (swag beetles), and even some of the inhabitants: Mondazy, the writer who imaged Death as a fish in Being Dead, appears twice. (The book’s second epigraph, originally attributed to one Abraham Howper, is here attributed to Mondazy, "the greatest writer from this town", though not the wealthiest.)
Five stories from The Devil’s Larder appeared in 1995 in The
Slow Digestions of the Night, a ‘Penguin 60’ (small format paperback), and
were subsequently anthologised in The Penguin Collection (1995).
At one point the American edition was to be titled The Devil’s Pantry
(!), but it appeared simultaneously with the
The invitation to the feast laid out in The Devil’s Larder comes, in the opening story, in the form of a tin that has lost its label: "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…" With the label gone, they cannot even be sure which is the top end, which the bottom. Of course they could just open it up. But there are risks involved; it could contain an aphrodisiac, a plague, "a devil or a god"…
The Devil’s Larder does not come with a list of ingredients either, much less one of those supremely obvious ‘serving suggestions’ that illustrate modern food packaging. When asked, Is it a dark book, or a light?, Crace responds that it is up to the reader, more or less. So readers – guests at the meal – will have to decide for themselves whether to risk a dish of Curry No. 3, sea holly, blind pie, or any of the other delicacies on offer.
Crace has, however, indicated that this is a ‘political’ book, and cites as one of his inspirations the folk-tale of the peasant who defeats a king in chess and asks that the king reward him with food: the king is to place one grain on the first square of the chess-board, two on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth, doubling the quantity each time until every square on the board is covered. The king agrees, thinking he has got off lightly; but in fact the mountain of grain that builds up is enough to empty all his storehouses and feed the world. (The chess-board, with its sixty-four alternating black-and-white squares, underlies the structure of Crace’s book.) In The Devil’s Larder, the game of Pass the Cake (38) is a variation of this folk-tale. A nine-year-old girl imagines how, through the participation of her friends, "a single cup containing sugar, milk and flour" could be made to grow. "If everybody played their part and kept their faith, then my cake would have produced four unbaked grandchildren by the following Friday…8 within the fortnight, and 1,024 fully cooked descendants within twelve weeks of the game starting." Her mother explains that " ‘Before the year is up, that little cup of sugar, milk, and flour will have fed the world.’ " But the girls are too impatient to wait. Though they could have "made the generations hunger-free", they devour the cake mix in an afternoon. The tone is by no means censorious – it is not the responsibility of nine-year-old girls to feed the world – but the story nonetheless quietly poses the question, why is it that we cannot make the "generations hunger-free"? and hints that the answer lies in our own impatience and greed. In another story (43), the guests at a wedding engage in an eating contest: "Speed was the thing. This was a race against the clock. They had to cram their mouths. If anything fell on the carpet, then so what?" It seems that the point of abundance (one story features a waiter who memorises the "ninety types of pasta…from angel hair to ziti") is not to feed the world but to satisfy the ever-more bizarre and extreme cravings of the few. The Devil’s Larder is full of characters who, like the woman who goes on eating aubergines though they deprive her of years of life, are utterly in thrall to their appetites.
There is another kind of abundance in the book. As several reviewers have noticed, the method for catching scrub fowl described in The Devil’s Larder (31) recalls an episode from Quarantine, in which the badu first rubs salt in a goat’s ear to drive out a blood-filled tick, then uses the tick as bait to catch a bird. Desert-dwellers must have often had to resort to such complicated procedures to keep their larders stocked. In The Devil’s Larder, it is smoke rather than salt that drives ticks out of the ears of their animal hosts. Accordingly a gang of boys beg their uncle to give them cigarettes so that they can catch their dinner: "We’d have to blow the smoke from his cigarettes into [the donkey’s] ears and wait for the ticks to show themselves in the folds of skin…We’d have to catch the tick before it hit the ground or it would burst…Then it was simple. All we had to do was pull a length of cotton from the bottom of our shirts, lasso the tick, and put it on a stone out in the sun…We wouldn’t have to count to ten even before a scrub fowl came…The captive tick, the cotton line went down its throat in one. We’d snared our meal." In fact the whole rigmarole is made up: the boys have no intention of catching ticks or "dining out on scrub fowl", it is the cigarettes they want. Their inventiveness is rewarded: "We filled our mouths and stomachs up with smoke. We fed on cigarettes…" The sheer extravagance of the fiction – its artfulness far in excess of what is required to bum a few cigarettes – is what makes the cigarettes themselves taste so good. The boys are lying for pleasure. Crace has described himself as "an evangelist for lying", and the tales in The Devil’s Larder reflect this commitment. In The Devil’s Larder his lies approach the form of fables and folklore, but the brevity of the pieces in no way limits the exuberance of his invention.
The Devil’s Larder was well-received in the
"Jim Crace is one of the best novelists in
"Crace’s fictions rise up and unfold in a beautiful, unhurried way, like the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales," writes Richard Wallace in The Seattle Times. To read the review, click here.
James Grainger, Toronto Star (Oct 21, 2001): "Fit for a king…Crace…has an almost uncanny ability to nail down a dramatic situation, and the characters to enact it, in one or two sentences…one of the best writers around."
Kevin Connolly, Eye (18 Oct 2001): "the tone moves from the morbid to the tender, the dark to the whimsical…it reads like a classic." This article contains extracts from a new interview with Crace in which he discusses his "European" ambitions in writing The Devil’s Larder, his commitment to "traditional" story-telling as opposed to the "very recent" idea of realism, and why he "would not be seen dead" reading the UK edition of The Devil’s Larder, with its "sexy" cover, in public. Well worth reading: click here.
In 2005 The
Devil’s Larder was brought to the stage by innovative theatre company Grid
Iron and won the Best of Edinburgh Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The award means the show will transfer to
"I wanted to transfer some of the talent of
"The Devil's Larder" is the latest production by Grid Iron, a Scottish group known for its site-specific work. At the Fringe, the play, an adaptation of Jim Crace's story collection of the same name about food, was set in a department store, where audiences, never more than a few paces from the cast, were guided in the dark to a series of unrelated vignettes, including a foiled fondue party that turned into an orgy.
"This will blow New Yorkers away," said Vallejo Gantner, the artistic director of P.S. 122 in the
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. 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 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 candle light 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 window sill 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 window sill. 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 took 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 pâté 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 the taxi back. I keep plants in the yard in pots and on the window sills. 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 window sill. 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 soufriéres 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 which 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 cuissardes 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 fulfilment 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 any more. We found the path up to the restaurant and it was punishing.