All That Heaven Allows

A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand BY Jim Harrison. Grove Press. Hardcover, 272 pages. $26.

The cover of A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand

"Existence is grounds for dismissal," Jim Harrison wrote in an essay called "Food and Mood" originally published in Brick magazine in 2006. "It has only recently occurred to me that I might not be allowed to eat after I die." If anyone could pull off eating in the afterlife, it would probably be Harrison, well known for all kinds of appetites here on Earth. Adventurous of both palate and mind, he was also a world traveler who loved Montana and Paris equally, he seemingly never said no to a road trip. One of the most memorable has to have been his ultimately unfulfilled quest through France to find a missing valise of poetry by the Spaniard Antonio Machado, whom he revered. At the journey's end, kneeling by Machado's grave in the pouring rain, Harrison saw a clear subterranean connection between mortality, language, the good meals he'd eaten along the way, and those to come: "The grave was laden with fresh flowers and poems with the rain blurring the ink. . . . Shivering in the twilight I naturally thought of dinner and wine . . . the tiny squid with the poetic ink staining the rice, the langoustines, the fresh favas with blood sausage, the rabbits browned with pork fat in a tomato sauce, and the food just over the bruised lip of the future, the four kilo loup de mer buried in gros sel, the eel stew."

Appropriately, this piece of writing comes to us from beyond the grave. Harrison died about a year ago, at age seventy-eight (no word yet on the quality of dinner in the great beyond, though I suspect he's working on a draft as we speak). A new collection, A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand (Grove Press, $26), offers one last look at what he ate, felt, reveled in, and raged about in the last of his swashbuckling years. Its title refers to a piece he wrote for the New Yorker in 2004 about a thirty-seven-course lunch in Burgundy, France, "that likely cost as much as a new Volvo station wagon," included here along with the complete menu, which alone takes up thirteen pages. Its subtitle is a reference to his first collection of food writing, The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand (2001), consisting largely of the somewhat gonzo food columns he wrote for Esquire and Men's Journal in the 1990s. That both volumes, in addition to his nearly forty other books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, exist despite Harrison's general disdain "for that Walmart of words, American publishing," is a testament to just one of the many dichotomies that lay at the heart of Harrison's life and work. His misgivings about the literary scene and the book industry were no impediment to a prolific career writing about what he thought of as the "important subjects: to wit, food, sex, and death, which have all been desperately trivialized by our culture."

Jim Harrison, mid-1970s. Linda Harrison, courtesy the Harrison family.
Jim Harrison, mid-1970s. Linda Harrison, courtesy the Harrison family.

He was a hardscrabble outdoorsman who left an academic post to become a writer and memorably described the natural world, but he was also a Hollywood screenwriter who ran with celebrities and celebrity chefs alike. A loan from Jack Nicholson enabled him to write his 1979 novella, Legends of the Fall, set in the rough world of the American West between World War I and the mid-twentieth century (it was based on the journals of his wife's great-grandfather). After it became a best seller, it, too, went Hollywood, as a splashy movie starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, and Aidan Quinn. Harrison was no stranger to eating rattlesnake and counted roasted dove (that he shot himself) and feral pigs among his favorite foods. But he also ate happily at numerous high temples of cuisine; Mario Batali, who contributed the introduction to the new book, was a close friend and longtime admirer. As Batali writes, "I always was and remain the student. Jim was sharper, more in tune with the distant cry of the loon over the lake while fishing on a lazy Tuesday morning, more sensitive to the moonlight over Washington Square Park on a dusk walk."

Running through all of Harrison's work is a belief in the power and primacy of food. "Your immediate survival can depend on the morale boost of a good dinner," he writes at the outset of a story about cooking at his remote cabin in northern Michigan. "I recalled a day when I got fired (for arrogance) yet again from Hollywood and the murk of the dismissal was easily leavened by grilling a baby lake trout, about a foot long, over an oak fire, basting it with dry vermouth, butter, and lemon. Minor disappointments over an inferior writing day could be allayed with a single chicken half-basted with a private potion called 'the sauce of lust and violence.'" The scene is different, but the message is the same when he writes with irritation about being put up in a fancy Paris hotel by a Hollywood studio trying to make a hundred-million-dollar deal: "I'm not comfortable in the Plaza Athénée in Paris or the Ritz in my collection of fifty-dollar sport coats. I've been easygoing about taking friends out for a seven-hundred-dollar meal but it would be unthinkable to spend that much on an article of clothing."

In 1988, an interviewer for the Paris Review asked him where his passion for food and cooking entered into his life as an artist, and he replied: "I think it's all one piece. When you bear down that hard on one thing—on your fiction or your poetry—then you have to have something like cooking, bird hunting or fishing that offers a commensurate and restorative joy. It comes from that notion that the way you eat bespeaks your entire attitude toward life." As such, he had no patience for people who didn't take food seriously—or took it seriously in the wrong ways. "The domestic duck is full of fat because it is raised on Long Island along with other banalities and absurdities," he wrote in a piece on how to eat "vividly" (an important word for Harrison). "That duck is appropriate for East Hampton, South Hampton, Sag Harbor." Of a 2002 trip to San Francisco, a mecca of foodie life, he commented, in the food-writing equivalent of a mic drop: "When I lived briefly in San Francisco in 1958 it was an active seaport full of jubilance, music, merriment, and heartiness. The morning I left town on my recent trip I heard of the local campaign against the evils of butter." His political foes get the treatment, too, and when he's really on point he can devastate multiple groups of people in just a few well-fired sentences. "There are food magazines published now that are frankly the equivalent of Penthouse or Hustler," he writes in "Food, Sex, and Death," "full of froufrou recipes by young chefs who couldn't roast a proper chicken at gunpoint. Doubtless, this food is eaten at wife-swapping parties starring the most daring young Republicans."

Harrison suffered from depression all his life, and he doesn't shy away from it in his writing, offering a contrast to the bombast as well as a deeply moving, hard-won articulation of self-knowledge. "In moments, perhaps hours, of despondency, I wonder if I have any clarity to offer," he writes, before providing an answer: "Yup, as we say in the northern Midwest." (Let's pause for a moment to admire the equally successful deployment of both that colloquial, rough-hewn affirmation and a glorious phrase like "the bruised lip of the future," found in the scene set at Machado's grave, which I haven't been able to stop thinking about since I read it.) Harrison increasingly wrote about death and aging as he succumbed to various infirmities—diabetes, gout, shingles—but he was realistic about it rather than macabre, in spite of his more melancholy tendencies. "Of course, it is natural to wonder how you got so old, but then you're ignoring the obvious answer that it happened behind your back in moment-by-moment increments. I've never been the man I used to be. If we keep descending into reality, we discover that we are as likely to be attractive again as our boyhood dog is to arrive at the back door with that softball he couldn't find fifty years ago." As for how to live with this truth—or how to face it down—the answer is the same as ever. "Eating is a race against time," he concludes at one point, before launching into an idyll worthy of its own Hollywood treatment:

This morning I shot yet another crotalid (rattlesnake) near the steps of my study, its writhing body finally slumping into a question mark. . . . I pitched the dead snake to the pigs, and the big sow, Mary, ate it with the evident pleasure of a hungry man before a plate of foie gras. She smiled at me as if to say "Thank you, we're on Earth together. When you eat my big hams I'll be turned loose in heaven in a field of ripe sweet corn and muskmelons."

That seems as good a vision as any to sign off on, and certainly better than anything I could come up with. Besides—I'm hungry. And as Harrison reminds me, "You, as a writer, must mix your essential gluttony and writing carefully. Despite your complaints you have lots of time to do so. Good food is so much more important than the mediocre writing that pervades the earth."

Melanie Rehak is the author of Eating for Beginners (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).