Thursday, December 20, 2001
Jim Harrison is one of America''s great food writers. He has also written the screenplays for two Hollywood movies-one starring Jack Nicholson and the other starring Brad Pitt-and also 14 books of poetry, three novellas and six novels, much of this work to huge critical acclaim.
So one might imagine that Jim Harrison would be a household name -even without the food writing. Granted, both of the movies had problems- the Mike Nichols-directed Wolf, in which Nicholson gives one of the best performances of his late career as a modern-day wolfman, was too weirdly psychological for most audiences; and while Legends of the Fall delivered brilliantly photographed pastoral scenes, it also featured Pitt cutting out the hearts from vanquished enemies-again, too much for many viewers.
And nobody reads poetry or fiction.
As a result, Harrison''s food writing has consistently won him his biggest audience-first as a columnist for Esquire during the 1990s, where his work appeared along with some of the best journalism of the time, and more recently in Men''s Journal, where, the last time I checked, his column is the only thing worth reading.
It is a stretch to call what Harrison does "food writing." Truer to call it literature, or to count it with the well-told true stories you occasionally hear in real life (more likely in a bar than at a party). All of Harrison''s work is shot through with raw humanity and reality, and this collection features detailed, funny and profound essays, none of which is really "about" food, but all of which contain scenes that involve eating it (at home in the company of friends, or alone in the middle of the night; or in restaurants from Michigan to Paris) or about preparing it (simply, for a solo lunch, or elegantly, for friends and family) or about buying it (at a butcher shop on the Upper Peninsula, or in a New York deli) or about hunting for it (mostly in the woods of the northern Midwest) and fishing for it (in mountain streams or in tropical oceans).
The Raw and the Cooked thus touches on the vastness of the subject of food in a way few books have. Reading it, one is connected, mouth and belly, to a whole world.
Harrison accomplishes this feat first of all by living an interesting life. Before he became a respected artist and began restaurant-hopping with Nicholson, Orson Welles, etc., Harrison lived the life of a 1960s "bohemian" (his word): traveling, getting high, soaking up food, wine and culture, and writing seriously. A self-described "sixth-generation farmer," he came from the once-typical American rural life that people of a certain age can still barely remember, when food came from gardens and freezers, from fields and rivers.
All of this-memories of suppers around the family table and of midnight gourmet feasts-gives Harrison a rare respect for food, as well as a ton of good anecdotes, which he relates liberally.
But it is the writing itself that makes The Raw and the Cooked one of the great food books of all time. (Harrison would roll his one good eye.) For the reader who loves good prose more than good food, the book is rewarding enough. The stories alone are compelling. (It''s hard to go wrong when you''ve got a tale that begins with Orson Welles calling at dawn to invite you to a dinner he has "designed" at a chi-chi Manhattan eatery, and ends with the author pulling the auteur, stuffed and in his cups, out of a limousine. And there are a dozen like that.)
But even better than the stories is the language, and even better than the language are the remarkable ideas, every one pushed to delightful extremes, and even better than that, for food lovers, are the recipes, the tastiest descriptions of restaurant meals, Harrison''s passionate love for the subject glistening like a fresh oyster.
In one hilarious essay, "What Have They Done With the Thighs," Harrison laments the proliferation of disembodied chicken breasts on the nation''s tables. The essay revolves around a factoid that Harrison finds disturbing, which he reports with typical verve:
A casual inquiry to my brother, who has contacts with Tyson, revealed (hold on to your ass!) that they shipped 50,000 metric tons of thighs and legs to Russia in 1990! I fear I do not comprehend the mind that remains unstunned by this figure. It fatigues the brain, and deep in the forest on my daily hike I leaned against a lightning-blasted beech tree and imagined a thousand of these tons frozen into the shape of a prone King Kong in the hold of a giant freighter. I had gotten rid of one but had forty-nine to go. So many thighs, so many freighters.
Theessay contains brief descriptions of a dozen preparations of chicken, duck, turkey and rabbit thighs, gleaned from childhood, from Harrison''s favorite cookbooks, from a million meals around the world, all told with wit and a sense of regret.
Only four pages long, the essay is expansive, and he ends the piece with an uncanny mix of surreal humor and moral outrage.
"...maybe the Russians need the thighs more than we do. Once they''re dead they may as well be eaten, and for reasons involving the lack of soul we''re not doing the job. I just worry that the Russians don''t have the proper condiments-the fresh garlic and herbs, peppers, hot sauces, BBQ sauces, the wild mushrooms, leeks, and cream.
Hereand throughout this collection food is the topic, but the subject is something deeper and more profound. Elsewhere he states the question that drives his work and his pursuit of life''s pleasures: "I wonder how we may shape ourselves, mind and body, to fully inhabit this earth," he writes. With The Raw and the Cooked, Harrison demonstrates one man''s efforts to face up to that task.