The Devil’s Larder by Jim Crace

Thanks to Dr. H for the photography.

Not so much a novel as a dreamily connected series of 64 short vignettes, The Devil’s Larder tells of the many differing viewpoints about, from, on and against food in our culture. It’s a pretty twisted read in many ways, subversive against so many deeply held beliefs about food and nourishment and cooking in society. Some of the short stories are disturbing – cannibalistic, incestuous, sad, or just plain weird.

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The golden thread that runs seamlessly through all the tales is the luscious description of the various food. No matter how visceral the tale, it’s the food that is the centerpiece, pardon the pun. There are soup stones, manac beans, honey, blind-baked pies, razor clams, morels, kumquats, and aubergines. I warn you that many of the stories will probably turn your stomach, in that complex way that food sometimes tempts and disgusts us at the same time.

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There were three that stood out to me. The first was the tale of the young man whose grocery store card tells the story of his life – his type of shaving cream, his cat died because he no longer buys cat food, he has a proclivity for expensive beer and croissants, he hasn’t had sex in nearly two years because the condoms he bought back then are past their expiration date. This was trippy because I’ve never really thought about how our food habits are tracked by these cards – talk about Big Brother!

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The second tale was a disturbing story of a mother and 5-year old daughter who want to see if pasta really tastes the same through another’s mouth, so they proceed to eat food out of each other’s mouths. Disturbing, because it’s so matter of factly written, not overtly sexual or incestuous, but still viscerally creepy because the mother is completely all right with her daughter’s going past these boundaries. I certainly don’t look at pasta with pesto sauce quite the same now.

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The third tale, and the one that stood out to me the most was the vignette about a fondue party going wrong. The heroine, having used subpar ingredients in her fondue and serving it to her obviously unimpressed guests, suggests a game. If a bit of food is left in the fondue pot after a dip, the perpetrator must drizzle the scalding cheese onto a body part and choose one of the other guests to lick it off.

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The melted fondue was not as tasty as she’d hoped. Her seven friends were only playing with their long-handled forks. They pushed their cubes of bread inside the caquelon with hardly any appetite. She should have used a cooking cheese, or added chunks of blue, or paid the extra for some Gruyere or some Emmenthaler.

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I’m a cheese-aholic, and my grandmother used to call me a little mouse because cheese was my absolute favorite snack. In keeping with the spirit of this tale, I had a fondue party and invited some friends. No one dropped any cheese on anyone and licked it off, though. I promise. This is the method that worked for me, based on a gazillion classic fondue recipes.

INGREDIENTS
1 lb total of different cheeses. I used Camembert, Brie, Gruyere, and a few sprinkles of blue.
1 and 1/2 cups white wine
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 garlic cloves
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

METHOD
Cut up the cheeses into cubes.2017-02-12-11-42-12_resized

Put into a saucepan over low heat. Add in 1 and 1/4 of the wine. Use something you’d drink.Mix together the cheeses and wine until you have a nice, thick, delicious, melty combination.

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Whisk together the cornstarch and the remaining 1/4 of the wine in a bowl. This will help thicken the cheese.

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Add the cornstarch/wine mixture to the melted cheese, stir again, and turn off the heat. Grate in the two garlic cloves, season with salt and pepper, and mix again. Cover the cheese while you prepare the fondue pot.

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Decant the cheese into a fondue pot over a Sterno can or spirit lamp and serve with whatever you’d like. I used cubed steak that was nicely cooked for a protein boost, and also because meat dipped in cheese is so damn good. I also used red radicchio, baby carrots, and endive leaves for dipping. So delicious! And you can lie to yourself that it’s healthy, because the vegetables offset the calories in the cheese. What, you didn’t know that?

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I would like to end this post with a little tribute to my sweet pug Sparky, who had a stroke early Thursday and who I had to put down on Friday. He was a darling baby, and brought such happiness to my life. Not to mention that he loved cheese, so he would have been particularly happy with this blog, as I’m sure I would have accidentally on purpose dropped some cheese on the floor for him. I miss him so much, my little furry baby.

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The Wonder Worker by Susan Howatch

Dedicated to RP, without whom this book would not have the meaning it does. Thank you for the life lessons.

 

This is one of those books I would want with me if trapped on a desert island. The Wonder Worker has many levels, and is one of those wonderful stories that you return to again and again, always finding something new in the words.

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On the surface level, it’s a story about four everyday people and their lives at the London-based Anglican rectory of St. Benet’s Church. Nicholas Darrow is the rector of St. Benet’s, and along with his assistant priest Lewis Hall, they run the church and affiliated Healing Center. Alice Fletcher is their cook/housekeeper, and Rosalind Darrow is Nicholas’s wife and the ultimate match that sets the flame for the dramatic events that happen in the book. The story is told from their individuals viewpoints, and one of the things I like most about this book is how you see the same events through differing lenses, and you always empathize with each character, even if you hated them when reading about them from another character’s POV.

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On another level, this book is about spirituality and The Church of England, which might not sound like the greatest thrill in the world, but you’d be surprised. Howatch brings the rituals, beliefs and psychology of the Anglican Church vividly to life. Each of these four characters is in their own emotional or spiritual predicament, and it’s the combination of these four different emotional crises that bring the book to its very exciting and disturbing climax, involving a demonic possession! And who doesn’t love a demonic possession?

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On the deepest level, it’s about the power of love. Love has many facets, as we all know. What I took away was the understanding of true, unconditional love for another person. You don’t have to like the actions of the other person, and you certainly don’t have to condone their actions, in order to still love them. Alice is in love with Nicholas, though they never cross the line into adultery. Her initial feelings for him are romantic, schoolgirlish; she sees him through the rose-colored glasses of instant infatuation. When she begins to see his darker side, though, she still loves him and makes more of an effort to understand him. She accepts him always, even though some of his actions later in the book are appalling and she never condones them. It is this understanding and acceptance that helps her learn more about her own motivations and spirituality. She becomes a better person for loving him, and ultimately, it’s this unconditional love for him that transforms everyone else around them. And that is what spoke to my heart, that knowledge that true, unconditional love for another, can make you a better, stronger person. It definitely did me.

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Back to the book. Rosalind decides to cook an elegant dinner for herself and Nicholas when she visits St. Benet’s, somewhat under duress. She plans a civilized, gourmet meal during which they will dine, drink wine, and she will tell him she wants a divorce. What could possibly go wrong in this scenario?

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“For the first course I had decided to do deep fried radicchio with goat’s cheese, a very tasty starter which apart from the final frying, can be prepared ahead of time……For the main course I had chosen roast guinea fowl.”

Guinea hen is what it’s called here in America, but I substituted Cornish game hens because I didn’t have a spare kidney to sell this week to buy one. As well, I had some wonderful dried mushrooms stashed in my refrigerator, waiting for a moment of inspiration, and it struck me that their reconstituted flavors would be fantastic with Cornish game hen, and grilled radicchio with a tasty twist. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
3 Cornish game hens, room temperature
3 strips of good quality, thick bacon
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 rib of celery, finely chopped

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3-4 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon truffle oil
Sea salt and pepper
1 cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup chanterelle mushrooms
1 cup strong red wine. I used Cabernet Sauvignon
1 head red radicchio, cut into quarters
Olive oil
2 lemons
Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese

METHOD
Soak the porcini and chanterelle mushrooms in a cup of hot water each for about 30 minutes.

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Fry the bacon until crisp, and remove to a paper towel to drain. In the bacon juices, cook the shallots and garlic.

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Drain the mushrooms, but KEEP the liquid they’ve been soaking in. Chop the mushrooms and add them to the shallots, garlic and rosemary mixture. Crumble up the bacon and add it to the mixture as well.

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Season the insides and outsides of the Cornish game hens with salt and pepper. Stuff each cavity with a sprig of rosemary. Then add the mushroom-bacon stuffing.

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Slice a lemon thinly, and carefully tuck small slices between the Cornish hen skin and the meat. This helps tenderize and adds more flavor. Tuck the little birds into a casserole, pour over some olive oil, and squeeze over the juice of half a lemon. In a separate pan, combine the red wine, mushroom juices and a chicken bouillon cube. Whisk in about a tablespoon of cornstarch. Stir and cook constantly for 20 minutes. Pour the liquid over the birds, c0ver with a lid and cook stovetop for 30 minutes at medium. Heat the oven to 375.

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After 30 minutes on the stove, remove the lid and put the pan of birds into the oven to cook for another 40 minutes. You want them uncovered so the liquid reduces into a gravy, and the birds get crisp. Check them occasionally to make sure they don’t burn.

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While this is happening, grill your radicchio. Brush each quarter with olive oil, salt and pepper, and grill on a stovetop grill for about 5 minute per side, until those nice, black, charred marks show up. Squeeze over some lemon juice and grate over some fresh Parmesan cheese.

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Serve with any starch you’d like. I love black Japanese rice, so I cooked mine in a mixture of chicken and tomato broths, and garnished with slivered almonds.

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The result? Almost heavenly! The Church would approve.