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Review: 'A Really Big Lunch' a fitting last supper from Jim Harrison

As much as I loved Jim Harrison's fiction and poetry, I've always had a special affection for his food writing. Boisterous and erudite and opinionated and wildly sensual, it always seemed his most personal writing, slipping the veil of fiction and the rigor of poems, and rippling with humor.

So it's apropos that, a year after his death in 2016, Grove has published a posthumous collection called A Really Big Lunch, a title that refers both to a legendary meal recounted therein and to Harrison's entire rich, enthusiastic life of the mind and the body.

There's a wonderful earlier collection, The Raw and the Cooked, first published in 1992 and mostly made up of his food columns by that name that ran in Esquire. And, of course, food and wine were constant themes in his novels and poems.

But A Really Big Lunch offers some gems I haven't seen before that appeared in various publications, some from as far back as the 1980s but most in the 21st century, the most recent written just a few months before his death.

The book has a warm introduction by chef and restaurateur extraordinaire Mario Batali, a close friend of Harrison's. He writes about the basis of that friendship: "Jim's appetite was legendary, and nothing makes a cook quite so happy as someone who exists entirely to eat — and when not eating, to talk about eating, to hunt and fish for things to eat, or to spend time after eating talking about what we just ate."

The title essay is the big dog, a New Yorker piece from 2004 about a 37-course lunch Harrison enjoyed at a French manor house owned by Gerard Oberle, a writer and rare-book dealer (who also held a 50-course dinner on his 50th birthday).

Spluttering at the very idea of a 37-course lunch, are you? Harrison heard that:

"If I announce that I and eleven other diners shared a thirty-seven-course lunch that likely cost as much as a new Volvo station wagon, those of a critical nature will let their minds run in tiny, aghast circles of condemnation. My response to them is that none of us twelve disciples of gourmandise wanted a new Volvo. We wanted only lunch and since lunch lasted approximately eleven hours we saved money by not having to buy dinner. The defense rests."

The lunch was prepared by a crew of more than three dozen and based on classic French cookbooks from the 17th through 19th centuries. Harrison offers his deep appreciation of most of the courses (he balks at the texture of oysters with Camembert but relishes everything else) and includes a complete menu that fills 13 pages. And, in the last paragraph, he's at the airport, dreaming of "the tonic Chicago-style hot dog that awaited me at O'Hare."

That's a fine example of the range of his tastes. He's savoring a 1982 Petrus in one place, offering a recipe for bear posole in another, always open to culinary possibilities high, low and in between. An avid hunter and angler, he ate what he killed and often cooked it himself, in the family kitchen or over a fire in the wilderness.

He says in one essay that it took him 50 years to learn to be a good cook, but he saw cooking as another kind of creativity that fed his writing: "Yes, I like seven pounds of short ribs and twenty-three cloves of garlic in barley soup. Some will settle for less but they're not writing barley poems."

Not that he didn't have decisive tastes. He adored red wine but mostly disdained white: "White wine is Apollonian, the wine of polite and dulcet discourse, frippish gossip, banal phone calls, Aunt Ethel's quiche, a wine for those busy discussing closure, healing, the role of the caretaker, the evils of butter, the wine of the sincerity monoethic."

But most of A Really Big Lunch is filled with appreciation and, having been written mostly late in his life, nostalgia. The later pieces reflect on the price he paid for all that lusty consumption: diabetes, gout, a heart attack, spondylolisthesis (a painful spinal condition).

He pokes fun at the notion of dieting: "Many of my male friends have, of late, been on strange diets so that younger women won't regard them as biological outcasts. If they are successful, younger women will think of them as thin old men."

But he made the same effort himself, as he ruefully admits: "The novelist Tom McGuane once noted that in the course of thirty-five years of correspondence between us I had lost a total of eighteen hundred pounds — so I was really 'getting down there.' "

These essays, though, have less regret than wistfulness. In one of the later ones, he laments the deaths of two writers who were close friends, Peter Matthiessen and Charles Bowden. His grief awakens a longing for the herring his Swedish mother served him when he was a boy, and he's comforted when Batali sends him "eight containers of different herring. ... As I dabbled in the various containers, waves of glorious warmth suffused my body as if I were sleeping with Venus, fresh from the sea."

"Good food," he concludes, "is so much more important than the mediocre writing that pervades the earth."

Harrison writes in one essay about meeting two great actor-directors, John Huston and Orson Welles, who, he says, surprised people when they "achieved their biblical three score and ten, given their reputations as tosspots and trenchermen."

Harrison did that and more, living to age 78. In one essay he writes, "In hopefully the waning days of my zona I am at least in the heaven of birds, this being the apex of northward migration with many exotics and rarities. One day while grilling a baby goat I saw a lazuli bunting and four different orioles, and one day while finishing a novel I saw an elegant trogon three feet out the window."

It's a description of his winter home in Arizona, where he died. Here's hoping there are lots of dogs and plenty of 1982 Petrus on the other side.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

A Really Big Lunch: The Roving Gourmand on Food and Life

By Jim Harrison

Grove Press, 275 pages, $26

Review: 'A Really Big Lunch' a fitting last supper from Jim Harrison 07/20/17 [Last modified: Monday, July 17, 2017 5:48pm]
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