Poet's palate

Jim Harrison finds much to eat and much to say about it.

"In search of prey (a good meal)."

How easily we forget that the life over examined is not worth living. Rather than descend into the sump of neuroticisms that makes many of us what we are, I’d like to think that my eating and drinking comprise a strenuous search for the genuine, that I am a voyager, an explorer, an adventurer in the ordinary activity of what we do every day: eat and drink.

—Jim Harrison, from the introduction

Michigan author Jim Harrison’s passions run wide and deep; his approach to them is giddy, respectful and nonhierarchical. A winter sky, a bowl of stew, a Gauguin exhibition, watching Bert and Ernie with his grandson, a well-written poem, trekking through mountains with his friend the grizzly-bear expert are all cause for serious celebration.

The Raw and the Cooked contains two decades of food writing. Much in this superb collection is directly about food: the now-famous essay lamenting the overuse of chicken breasts, “What Have We Done With the Thighs?”; comments on various food preferences, such as this one on oatmeal: “… in my heart I knew I’d rather eat the cow than the oats the cow eats”; and a remarkable correspondence between Harrison and his good friend, the French gourmet Gérard Oberle.

Yet Harrison’s food writing is an excuse to cover an array of topics that concern his fiction as well, including disdain for shoddy politics and business: “Unlike Mitterrand in France and the Japanese, our leaders don’t know what to eat and can barely read or write.” He conjectures a “punishing meal for the Supreme Court for not reading the constitution” (it includes Spam, green Jell-O and “a bottle of Riunite apiece”). Watching the Academy Awards, he is struck by the “shrill evidence of an extreme black phobia in Beverly Hills.” And there is a sadly moving passage in one of Oberle’s letters from France, “Soon all the wildlife in our countrysides will be killed off by the pesticides, the insecticides.”

Harrison also nails certain cultural sensibilities. The “fraudulence” of most restaurant food in the United States can be explained by a general observation he attributes to Umberto Eco: “Americans are spectacular at imitating the genuine.” In another passage, he overhears a woman say, “I straightened out my agenda, and now I feel good about myself,” and labels it “Brie-in-the-Cuisinart kind of language.”

And he portrays Americans’ Puritan-derived tendency toward extremism, expressed as both under- and overindulgence. On the one hand are the lean, worried professionals on both coasts. Los Angeles lacks “good snack food” and, as for the East Coast, “Anyone who has spent an afternoon in New York has seen the sullen and distraught faces of those who have eaten a julienne of jicama with raspberry vinaigrette and a glass of European water for lunch.”

At the other end of this spectrum are the joyless overindulgers, characterized by the “Christian fat” he observes in Memphis, Tenn.: “These men are devout and don’t want to become lean, hungry lotharios, so they favor virtuous overeating … Sinless fat people are doubtless headed for heaven.”

Harrison deftly weaves beloved writers into his thought process. Among those paid tribute to here are poets and novelists (Rilke, Lorca, Wallace Stevens, James Lee Burke, Joy Williams), as well as food writers (John Thorne, M.F.K. Fisher, Paula Wolfert). On a dismal trip to Los Angeles for screenwriting business, he picks up a book by Neruda and, “within half an hour the great Chilean had sedated the banal format of Los Angeles all by himself. What power!” And alone in his Northern Michigan cabin, Harrison moves through James Villas’ French Country Kitchen, “as if it were a novel, pausing to brood over splendid plot twists, the movement from region to region in search of prey (a good meal).”

The meals he describes, whether a complex Parisian feast or the simple whitefish and corn bread he cooks over an oak fire, are captivating, if sometimes daunting. Not everyone has the constitution to consume what he shared while dining with Orson Welles, “… half pound of beluga with a bottle of Stoli, a salmon in sorrel sauce, sweetbreads en croute, a miniature leg of lamb (the whole thing) with five wines, desserts, cheeses, ports.”

It is precisely such admissions of indulgence that give the nuggets of Zen-like wisdom Harrison imparts particular resonance. From a less sincere writer, a line like “Our lives are made up of the particulars of what we do every day,” would fall flat and deflated. Yet Harrison strikes a perfect pitch; he at once takes things completely seriously and does not take them seriously at all. His relish for the small and big things life has to offer is touching and inspiring. After all, as he puts it, “Our passions help one another survive.”

Lynn Crawford writes about books for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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