How to Eat a Really Big Lunch with Jim Harrison
Sharing Enchiladas with an Iconic Gourmand
In November of 2003, less than a month before his 66th birthday, the poet and writer Jim Harrison—who died last March at the age of 79—left his farmhouse in Montana’s Paradise Valley and drove some 25 miles through the state’s aspen and fir woodlands to Bozeman, where, overcoming acute claustrophobia, he boarded a plane to Chicago’s O’Hare International Terminal 5. There he caught a connecting flight to Charles de Gaulle, and then a train to Burgundy . . . all to eat lunch.
Harrison arrived around noon at Marc Meneau’s L’Esperance, translation: “The Hope,” a storied Michelin three-star in the village of Saint-Père-sous-Vézelay. He had a seat among 11 others. A day later, after consuming 37 courses drawn from 17 cookbooks published between 1654 and 1823, plus 14 bottles of wine, all of which “likely cost as much as a new Volvo station wagon,” he took a bath, wandered around Paris, then went to Thoumieux for a few bottles of Gigondas, two vegetable courses, and a duck confit.
So I was more than a bit relieved when, moments after sitting down to lunch with him at just after one o’clock on Valentine’s Day last year, Harrison asked our waiter, “What can I eat that’s small?”
It was almost spring in Patagonia, Arizona, where he had spent the last 25 years in refuge during the months when Montana got too cold and snowy. The cholla cacti hadn’t yet bloomed, and the rare gray hawks he’d mentioned in an email hadn’t yet migrated north from Mexico. The creek behind his casita was a little low but flowing, and, earlier in the day, when we drove down it to look for vermillion flycatchers on the emory oak branches, we found that they hadn’t shown up yet either.
The waiter pointed towards the cheese enchilada a la carte, which we both ordered.
“You want a beer?” Harrison asked, then got us each a Pacifico with lime. “Bring extra red chili,” he added, sounding more like the man I’d expected, who famously bragged that he holstered a bottle of hot sauce wherever he went. “And can I have a glass?”
A Day with Jim Harrison, 2015
Harrison grew up a hardy farmboy in rural Michigan, where, in his words, “the assumption that we eat to live, not live to eat, was part of the Gospels.” Call it behavioral development, or simply rebellion, that he grew into a writer who once summed up his lifetime MO as an attempt ”to eat well and not die from it.”
In 2001, he claimed a kind of heavyweight belt among food writers with an expanded re-publication of his book from 1992, The Raw and the Cooked, a collection of feature stories that had originally ran in magazines like SMART and Esquire, under titles like “Outlaw Cook” and “What Have We Done With The Thighs?” In the introduction, he champions the term “food bully”—first coined by master eater Orson Welles, his culinary sensei, with whom he’d consumed a series of gigantic training meals, including “a half-pound of beluga with a bottle of Stolichnaya, a salmon in sorrel sauce, sweetbreads en croûte, a miniature leg of lamb (the whole thing) with five wines, desserts, cheeses, ports” . . . in one sitting.
If you ask me what sounds more fun—peace and quiet in Cedar Rapids with the Sterns, or vodka and wines with Orson and Harrison—I’m not sure how anyone would call that a contest.
But the book’s reissue, combined with Harrison’s exuberant approach to life itself, also left him lumbering in the crosshairs of critics like Jane and Michael Stern, NPR’s darling foodie couple and co-authors of the “Roadfood” series, who panned him in a tag-team Times review, claiming “The Raw and the Cooked made us yearn to sit quietly over plates of pan-fried chicken and chocolate layer cake at the counter of some modest cafe in rural Iowa.” They didn’t love Harrison’s aggressive, assertive, macho style of eating, nor were they charmed by what they interpreted as his aggressive, assertive, macho style of writing. Which is understandable. But if you ask me what sounds more fun—peace and quiet in Cedar Rapids with the Sterns, or vodka and wines with Orson and Harrison—I’m not sure how anyone would call that a contest.
And so it was to much fanfare, a few groans, and relatively little surprise when, in September, 2004, about a year after his time in France, Harrison’s diary of the occasion—and most ambitious project to date—“A Really Big Lunch,” appeared in The New Yorker. The characteristically greasy, meandering, poetic narrative churns between the writer’s mind and esophagus and stomach, turning around a somewhat dumb question: “Is there an interior logic to overeating?”
To that end, Harrison had, in just over 24 hours, consumed all manner of organs from a small zoo of fauna—poultry and crayfish soup; tartines of foie gras, truffles, and lard; another soup of cucumbers and squab, served with cock fritters; a crayfish bisque; oysters on toast; jellied poultry loaf; Baltic herring; tart of calf’s brains; sea urchin omelet; fillet of sole; monkfish livers; pike and parsley; oven-glazed brill served with fresh cream, anchovies, and roasted currents; another stew of suckling pig, slow-cooked in a red-wine sauce thickened with its own blood, onions, and bacon; a warm terrine of hare with preserved plums; a poached eel with chicken wing tips and testicles in a pool of tarragon butter; glazed partridge breasts; a savory of eggs poached in Chimay ale; and then a mille-feuille of puff pastry sandwiches with sardines and leeks; bites of stuffed ravioli; more poached eggs; squab hearts; a “light” stew of veal breast in a puree of ham and oysters; gratin of beef cheeks; more squab (“spit-roasted”); wild duck with black olives and orange zest, a buisson (bush) of more crayfish with little slabs of grilled goose liver; a terrine of the tips of calves’ ears; hare cooked in port wine inside a calf’s bladder—plus crispy breaded asparagus, a sponge cake with fruit preserves, cucumbers stewed in wine, another few rounds of salads, cream of grilled pistachios, meringues, macaroons, and chocolate cigarettes. The night concluded with an entire additional dessert course in the restaurant’s nearby salon, followed by 80-year-old brandy and some Havana Churchills.
“A Really Big Lunch” is now the title essay of a new, posthumous collection, which debuts on March 24, two days before the one year anniversary of Harrison’s death. It includes 275 pages of his fringier food writing—poems and essays from lesser-known, alternative venues like Mike Golden’s Smoke Signals, Kermit Lynch’s Wine Merchant, and Ondaatje’s Brick, plus an introduction by Mario Batali.
And while a meditation on gluttony might at first seem a little tone deaf, there’s much more to the book than its author’s enormous appetite—just as there was more to Harrison than his appetite, and more to his appetite than mere indulgence.
“This is the bar with my people,” Harrison said, gesturing his giant, callused hand—basically a paw—towards a sign that read WAGON WHEEL SALOON. It was by far the busiest establishment among the handful of shops on the bordertown’s main drag, where, he explained with an obsessive attention to the details of his purview, “they used to have cattle in corrals to ship out on the train.”
In younger author photos, he had the athletic build and Midwestern grace of a Ditka linebacker, often sporting a dark mustache and always a cigarette below it. One memorable image captures a confident young sportsman in overalls, arms spread out as though crucified between the haunch and withers of a large brown mare. By contrast, the man I had followed through the bar and into the open air cantina out back looked like a mythical creature you’d find guarding a bridge in Narnia or throwing back grog at a tavern in Middle-earth. He moved as if underwater, slow and wise and obviously old, with the long white beard of an Old Testament patriarch, wispy gray hair, and the kind of smokey eyes that swallow light, like little ghosts below what could only be called owlish eyebrows.
But none of this is what I or anyone else new to the Wagon Wheel that afternoon would have noticed about Harrison—rather, it was his ass. His mobility had been severely compromised several years prior in a spinal surgery that “wasn’t entirely successful,” which rendered him less than 100% for so long that his handicap had become a new normal. Consequently, he was in constant pain, especially when moving. And today, when he did move, his gray elastic shorts sagged lower and lower down around his atrophied quads revealing his pale crack and butt cheeks, a spectacle that was clearly nothing new for the locals, who treated him as one of their own because he was.
“Jim, how you doing,” a guy called over to our table.
“C-minus,” Harrison, still standing, shouted back. “I rate myself for people,” he explained. He was down a full point from 2013, when he reported “about a B-minus” to Jeff Baker of the Portland Oregonian.
I asked if he was ever an “A”?
“Almost never,” he said. “I haven’t had much good happen in this last year.” He groaned and ached visibly as his body crashed into a plastic lawn chair. “Fucking back,” he said.
I asked if it was his spine, which he’d gone into detail about earlier, over breakfast.
“No,” he corrected, “this is something else up here. I had shingles three years ago—but it developed into what they call ‘post-herpetic neuralgia.’ Which means that where all the shingles sores were on my scapula, the sores have all gone, but the pain remains because of the quarrel between nerves and my scapula. So it’s very unpleasant to deal with the spine problems and the shingle problems—plus the wife’s death.”
Linda, his wife of 55 years, had died the previous October.
“I was trying to sing a song the other day,” he said, then launched into broken verse, his voice high and crackling and sort of inching along with the same broken pace he used whenever he read his poems aloud—“There stands the glass—that will ease all my pain—that will settle my brain—it’s my first one today.” He considered the lyrics for a few breathes, then took a swig of beer. “I’ll remember who it is later. I listened to it for years.”
I asked what he did most days.
“Write,” he said. “I don’t know what else to do. It’s my way of seeing the world.”
His first book of poems, Plain Song, debuted in 1965, when he was 28, and in the years since, he’d put out a whopping 13 more books of poetry and 21 of fiction, plus several collections, a prodigious career that had earned him comparisons to Faulkner and—although he disputed any similarities—Hemingway. In the first two months of 2016 alone, just months before his death, he released a new book of poems, Dead Man’s Float, and a new novella, The Ancient Minstrel. Later in our meal he mentioned a developing collaboration with Batali called “On The Track of The Genuine,” and, at the end of our 8-hour day together, he revealed that while we were talking, he’d composed a scene from another novel in progress, which he’d tentatively named, The Girl Who Loved Trees.
“I used to hunt,” he continued, “But I’ve hunted enough in my life. Now I just let my friend take off with his dogs and I’ll sit on a stump for an hour or so.”
He reached into his pocket and removed two packs of cigarettes, one blue and one black, both of which, while back at his house, he’d carefully selected from a pile of more than a dozen more packs, both blue and black, stacked neatly on a formica countertop next to a bowl of nuts, a bowl of fruit, and a bottle of Cahors.
I asked about the packs.
“I’m a Democrat and I like to be fair,” he joked, then explained that the black ones were stronger and therefore better, but also harder on his lungs—which, to be honest, seemed like an odd precaution for someone, like Harrison, who so rarely didn’t have a cigarette in his mouth. “I have to have my dysfunctional esophagus operated on. But I can’t bear it after my spinal surgery—I ended up having to go to Mayo for a couple months and learn to walk again. The neurologist said ‘If you’re patient you’ll walk yourself out of this.’ I said ‘How long?’ He said, ‘That’s what people always ask . . . it’ll probably be years.’”
I asked if he was patient.
“Yeah,” he said, flicking the lighter several times with a kind of dumb touch, eventually getting the thing to stay lit, then glancing down sideways at the flame as he slowly drew it closer and closer to his face and the cigarette, which looked like a baby carrot enveloped between his enormous, chubby knuckles. He smoked this way, too, with one palm entirely obscuring his mouth, as though he was speaking into a CB radio. “St. Augustine said a remarkable thing: The reward of patience is patience. Which is true.”
After several drawn-out poufs, he continued: “I meet writers in New York who actually say to me, ‘You’ve had all the luck.’ I say, ‘Well, I did the work, too.’ Forty books. They want to do a book or two and get famous.”
“If you aren’t sufficiently interested in other people to ask them questions,” he said, “then what’s it all about?”
He coughed—a long wet cough that carried on for several seconds—then moved his hand away from his mouth and looked down at the cigarette. “What writers need—above all else—is humility. Would you agree? What are you gonna write about if you’re just a fucking narcissist? You know? You have nowhere to go.”
His focused shifted slightly as he spotted something on the horizon outside town. “You can see just the tip of the fire tower over there. A local woman spent 15 years up there. She loved it.” Then his focus shifted again, and he asked, “Where did you stay last night?”
When I told him I’d camped just north of Tucson on Mount Lemmon, he launched into a story about the place: “They’re trying to get my help renaming part of that park after Chuck Bowden—a writer and friend of mine who died. He was a profound Mexican violence observer, wrote a lot about Juarez. Five thousand people murdered in one year because of quarrels between the drug cartels”—then his story hopped slightly, shifting gears the way his writing does, following a sort of associative poetic awareness. “In the 25 years I’ve been here in the winter we’ve had no civilian deaths. So the danger of the border is much overrated unless you’re a member of a cartel. I’ve seen migrants come through, but rarely drug runners. I see them while hunting. We had a very young couple come down the creek. I remember talking to them. Sadly enough they wanted to know how to get to Chicago.”
Next he wanted to know my shoe size, where I got my briefcase, my favorite bird’s voice. “If you aren’t sufficiently interested in other people to ask them questions,” he said, “then what’s it all about?”
He asked about my last name, my family’s nationality, my grandfather, my sister, my father.
“I wanted to be a writer since I was 14,” he said. “My dad was full of support for it but my mother wasn’t. She was more like most mothers—always worried about me making a living. After my dad died, she went back and finished college and became a social worker. And then she confessed to me later that work was a sad thing to waste your life on.”
By the time our enchiladas arrived, Harrison had segued into a story about his dead brother, John, who taught the great American ornithologist David Sibley in a Connecticut Sunday School. “You gotta be careful, people die,” he said, just as the waiter let us know that our plates were still hot, which Harrison disregarded, immediately instructing “go for it”—then exclaiming, a bit panicked—“She didn’t bring the chilis?!”—then spotting them behind a beer bottle and correcting himself—“Oh, yes she did! She’s my darling. That red chili is the best. Suzie makes it fresh every day.”
But before he started in on his food, Harrison rose from the table, and, over the next several minutes, struggled to remove a worn gray t-shirt.
He stood there for a few seconds in the sun, his left shoulder hunched high, his body in decline, so much so that seeing it brought to mind the awesome power of a very old elephant—along with the palpable feeling that it is incredibly rare and respectable for someone you barely know to let you in so close to their world, especially when their world is full of fragility and pain and vulnerability and dying and death.
“Barking” by Jim Harrison
The moon comes up.
The moon goes down.
This is to inform you
that I didn’t die young.
Age swept past me
but I caught up.
Spring has begun here and each day
brings new birds up from Mexico.
Yesterday I got a call from the outside
world but I said no in thunder.
I was a dog on a short chain
and now there’s no chain.