Words on life from a writer and true gourmand
By Jim Harrison
A REALLY BIG LUNCH: MEDITATIONS ON FOOD AND LIFE FROM THE ROVING GOURMAND
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.