Words on life from a writer and true gour­mand

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By John Greenya John Greenya is a Wash­ing­ton writer and critic.

By Jim Har­ri­son


Grove At­lantic, $35, 275 pages

Jim Har­ri­son and red wine started go­ing to­gether when he was a teenager and they never broke up. The 79-year-old poet, es­say­ist, screen­writer, and novel- and novella-writ­ing man of let­ters was a life­long drinker of red wine, the qual­ity of which was di­rectly re­lated to his cur­rent in­come.

As a young poet in Green­wich Vil­lage mak­ing $35 a week, it was Gallo; then af­ter he’d switched from po­etry to fic­tion and was be­gin­ning to make a pass­able liv­ing, he drank reds from France’s Cote du Rhone. And dur­ing the short pe­riod in which he was paid vast sums by Hol­ly­wood to write screen­plays, he drank such im­mor­tal red wines as 1970 Lafite-Roth­schild. No Cal­i­for­nia wines? He writes, “I ad­mit I’m prej­u­diced against most Cal­i­for­nia wines, which can be used to paint a house pur­ple, but there are ex­cep­tions.”

He also be­came a true gour­mand, but this book of­ten reads as if food were of­ten an ac­com­pa­ni­ment to the wine, and not the other (usual) way around.

“A Re­ally Big Lunch” is a col­lec­tion of food — and wine — ar­ti­cles he wrote for a va­ri­ety of mag­a­zines large and small, from Play­boy and The New Yorker to Smoke Sig­nals, Brick and The Ker­mit Lynch Wine Mer­chant news­let­ter. In all cases, but most no­tice­ably in the pieces from Brick, Mr. Har­ri­son was ob­vi­ously given free rein to write about any­thing he wanted, and the re­sult is im­pure, unadul­ter­ated Jim Har­ri­son.

The ti­tle comes from his Sept. 6, 2004 New Yorker ar­ti­cle about a feast of 37 cour­ses that Mr. Har­ri­son and friends con­sumed in Bur­gundy, France, along with (as he com­plains sev­eral times) “only” 19 wines. Of this lunch, Mr. Har­ri­son writes, “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.”

Mr. Har­ri­son’s likes and dis­likes are strong. In ad­di­tion to red wine and red meat, among his main likes are hunt­ing (es­pe­cially birds be­cause, as he tells us re­peat­edly, they make such good eat­ing when cooked over a wood fire) fish­ing (es­pe­cially trout, for the same rea­son), hot sauces, long walks with his dog, smok­ing cig­a­rettes and drink­ing whiskey.

He dis­likes chicken breasts (thighs be­ing much pre­ferred), and white wine. “There is some­thing,” he writes in a piece ti­tled “Close to the Bone,” “about the pres­ence of bones and the fla­vor they add that’s not to be found in the rel­a­tively ubiq­ui­tous, skin­less, bone­less chicken breast.” To un­der­score his point, he quotes from the in­tro­duc­tion to Roger Welsch’s book “Dig­gin’ In and Pig­gin’ Out”: “A skin­less, bone­less chicken breast carved from a hot­house fac­tory chicken is the moral equiv­a­lent of In­ter­net sex.”

As for white wine, “[It] is the wine of pure 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, [and] the evils of but­ter. … My mother used to tor­ture me with the ques­tion, ‘What if every­one were like you?’ I have it on good au­thor­ity that both Diony­sus and Beethoven drank only red wine, while Bill Gates and a hun­dred thou­sand proc­tol­o­gists stick to the white.”

The table of con­tents tells the reader where these ar­ti­cles ap­peared, but not when, which would have helped, though hints abound. Early on, he men­tions a recipe he read in Wil­liam Least Heat Moon’s “Blue High­ways,” a fine book from 1982, and in one of the last ar­ti­cles he ref­er­ences Lady Gaga.

There are also recipes — Mr. Har­ri­son’s own as well as oth­ers’ — strewn through­out the book, but they are not why “A Re­ally Big Lunch” is such a gem. That’s be­cause of the asides, the com­ments-in-pass­ing on life and liv­ing and lit­er­a­ture that ac­com­pany the in­for­ma­tion about food and hunt­ing and walk­ing and — his ad­vice to the ner­vous — log-sit­ting (which he claims will change your life).

Here’s just one ex­am­ple of many: It refers to the “pa­thetic cooks” who eat only the breasts of birds they’ve shot. “They’ll skin sev­eral grouse, put them in the Crock-Pot with three cans of Camp­bell’s mush­room soup, and cook for hours. This is ghastly treat­ment of a creature. It’s too bad you can’t train grouse to shoot hunters.”

And it’s too bad Jim Har­ri­son died on March 24, 2016 (this book is be­ing pub­lished on the one-year an­niver­sary of his death), but let’s hope there are more col­lec­tions of the work of this unique and uniquely Amer­i­can writer to come.

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