Jane’s Pick: Delicate, Edible Birds by Lauren Groff
Ortolan – a small beautiful songbird that people eat whole in one bite. Diners traditionally cover their heads with their napkin while eating the delicacy to hide the shame and gross reality of eating something so beautiful whole, crunching on bones, swallowing fat, entails, and feet – everything but the beak.
As I started reading the short story collection, Delicate, Edible Birds – ortolans came to mind. Each story is like devouring a forbidden treat – each a small morsel of a particular woman’s inner landscape with all its rich flavors, but not really meant for consumption.
The stories range in time and place, from the New York City during the 1918 Flu pandemic to the French countryside during WWII to present day rural America – but all are grounded in emotional openness and authenticity. Heartbreak, grief, pain, and hope and unexpected happiness all tie together – sometimes within the same story. The stories are not linear – there are threads of thought that turn our attention away from the main narrative. These threads are not distractions, though, but rather illuminations of some theme within the story.
It wasn’t until the last story that I realized that Groff had actually named the collection for the ortolan – the reference is found in Delicate, Edible Birds, and it seems to exist only as one of those exits away from the main story – but it is an analogy for the story as a whole.
“the tiniest bird carcasses imaginable browned and glistening with butter…” ‘A bunting,’ whispered her lover, bathing her ear in his wine-warmed breath. Caught, blinded, and fattened with millet, then drowned in Armagnac, and roasted whole. ‘A delicacy,’ he said.”Lauren Groff – Delicate, Edible Birds and Other Stories
And that is why I am drawn to Groff’s stories – you have to pay attention as layer after layer is peeled back. These are complicated stories told in an unassuming way; weaving and poetic.
“There is no ending, no neatness to this story. There never really is where water is concerned. It is wild, febrile, kind, ambiguous; it is dark and carries the mud, and it is clear and the cleanest thing. Too much of it kills us, and not enough kills us, and it is what makes us, mostly. Water is the cleverest substance, wily beyond the stretch of our mortal imaginations. And no matter where it is pent, no matter if it is air or liquid or solid, it will someday, inevitably, find its way out.”Lauren Groff – Delicate, Edible Birds and Other Stories