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Book Review

Kurlansky’s ‘Edible Stories’ more appetizer than full meal

By Julie Wittes Schlack
Globe Correspondent / December 8, 2010

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Ever since reading “Like Water for Chocolate,’’ I have assumed that a book about food would be a book about love. But this new collection of stories by Mark Kurlansky, author of bestsellers such as “Salt’’ and “Cod,’’ has cured me of that naiveté. The chapters of “Edible Stories’’ present individual foods as distracters, inciters, strangers, tempters, dangers, untrustworthy friends, and only occasionally as sources of pure pleasure or nurturance. As individual courses, some are tasty and some pique the appetite. But others are strangely ornate and bland at the same time.

The book opens with the tale of Robert Eggles, a man with amnesia. Robert has lost not only his memory, but also his capacity to smell and taste. Sensorially deprived, he becomes progressively more unmoored, until finally he returns to the spot where the story begins, carrying nothing but the gift of a bag of Hawaiian red sea salt from his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Margaret, and the will to start over. While perhaps intended to be ironic that a book about food opens with a protagonist who can’t taste it, his disconcerting anhedonia permeates much of what follows.

Over the course of the remaining chapters, we meet several other far-flung characters. There’s Kugelman, a New York investor who discerns the secret connection between obesity, biotech, and strangely addictive muffins. Jacob Green is a globe-trotting senator with presidential aspirations who longs to bed his translators, the intensity and velocity of his desire manifested in the meals they serve him — a long-simmering, rich Mexican stew called menudo in one story, a fast and fiery Chinese hot pot in another. There’s Chancy, a Louisiana ingénue who eventually ends up in Paris serving Belon oysters that temporarily revitalize the libido of an aging expat. Oh, and of course, there’s Emma, who in one story longs to taste a Yankee Stadium hot dog, but evolves into someone with a profound fear of crème brûlée. Seriously.

What ostensibly makes this a “novel in sixteen parts’’ rather than a short story collection is that many of these characters reappear and intersect in new combinations over the course of multiple chapters. That, and the fact that the Hawaiian red sea salt also passes from hand to hand, as mysterious in its significance in the last chapter as it is in the first. But structural conceit doesn’t make a novel. While people (and salt) move from place to place, there is little development in plot or character. The protagonists like Emma — whose mistrust of food amplifies and broadcasts her mistrust of people — are generally one-trick ponies, recognizable by some single, obvious quirk or tick, but paper-thin regardless of their girth. That’s OK when they’re simply supporting players to foods that are presented with complexity, nuance, and character, but that happens all too rarely.

However, when it does, what a treat. In “Cholent,’’ the variants of a bean stew are as hilarious and vivid as the debates among members of an orthodox congregation about how best to cook it. And the poignant wackiness of the family gathered for a vegan turkey dinner in “Bean Curd’’ gives another whiff of what Kurlansky can accomplish when he allows himself to be more engaged in the dish than in its preparation.

As he’s demonstrated in his nonfiction, Kurlansky is a capable writer whose passion can enliven even the most innocuous of topics. One can only hope that as he becomes more comfortable as a novelist, he’ll take the authorial lid off his characters and let more of their humanity bubble to the surface.

Julie Wittes Schlack, a Cambridge-based writer, can be reached at jwschlack@gmail.com.

EDIBLE STORIES: A Novel in Sixteen Parts By Mark Kurlansky

Riverhead, 265 pp., $16