Thursday, July 23, 2020

Coffee Table: Jim Harrison

Title: The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand
Author: Jim Harrison
The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand: Harrison ...
via Amazon
Jim Harrison was a successful writer of poetry, novels, non-fiction and, especially novellas.  The money came when Hollywood came calling, most famously for Legends of the Fall.  He was a man of great passions, most especially food.  The Raw and the Cooked is a collection of essays, most previously published between 1989 and 2001.  Harrison was no mere consumer.  He was an enthusiastic cook and an avid hunter, especially of game birds.

Harrison had expensive tastes and, at least while the screenwriting money was coming in, the bank account to afford it.  This is not an ode to the simple charms of simple eating.  Most of us can't afford multiple homes in the Michigan Upper Peninsula, Arizona and Montana.  Few of us would consider $500 a reasonable price for a great meal.  Not all of us have the chance to rub elbows with Jack Nicholson and Francis Ford Coppola (Harrison's name dropping is particularly tiresome).  In all honesty, I would have enjoyed the book more if the author had a touch more humility.  MFK Fisher, after all, was most definitely upper class but that wouldn't have stopped me from angling to sit next to her at a dinner party.  With Harrison, I'm pretty sure I would have found an excuse to leave early.

That is not to say the book is without charm, quite the contrary.  Harrison wrote beautifully and his musings on life are more interesting than his musings on food.  Harrison was not a whole lot older than I am at the time of the earliest essay and his attitude towards middle age isn't so different from my own.  In short, I am what I am.  It's too late to get hung up on all the things that I am not.  Best to relax and enjoy what is.  And not all was rosy for Harrison.  He devoted an entire chapter to clinical depression and his loving eulogy to his favorite hunting dog is genuinely sweet.  I certainly would not have been too proud to sit at his table, either.  His brisket recipe left my mouth watering.  A couple lines I especially like:

"Art is in no position to duke it out with our baser appetites..."

"Decay emerges from the scorn of the ordinary, or from the political distortion of the ordinary where greed and psychotic tribalism are the most esteemed virtues."

Harrison also devoted a great deal of thought to a curiosity I share: genuine American cuisine.  Just as American culture itself is hard to pin down, so is our food tradition.  The challenges are obvious: our nation is enormous and the internal and external cultural influences practically innumerable.  But in thinking about it, I realized something: there really is no such thing as a national cuisine anywhere in the world.  All cuisine is regional.  What we think of as French?  It's really a combination of Parisian and Lyonnaise with sprinklings from Alsace, Dijon, Burgundy and Bourdeaux.  Italian?  Well, do you mean Bologna? Naples? Sicily?  What we think of as Japanese food is Tokyo-based and anyone from Osaka would set you straight in a hurry.  Spain?  India?  China?  Forget it.  Maybe a place like Luxembourg is small enough to boast a genuine national cuisine but most countries are too big.

We do have genuine regional cuisines in the States: Maine lobster, Maryland crabcakes, Louisiana Cajun, etc.  Barbecue alone is highly regionalized.  And there's plenty that predates Columbus:  corn, potatoes, maple syrup, turkey.  American cuisine is not as delicately balanced as others - it's dangerously protein-heavy in particular - but that is not to say it doesn't exist.

It's a precarious moment in world history for food culture.  On the bright side, people are cooking at home more than they have in generations.  On the more desperate side, the restaurant industry is suffering brutally from COVID.  While "fine dining" isn't everything, professional kitchens are where the art of cooking is preserved and developed.  Also, travel is discouraged so my urges to head to the seacoast for fresh shellfish must be put on hold for now.  I think of the old Southwest Airlines tagline: "You are now free to move about the country."  We're not really just now.  As a natural introvert, I'm okay with social distancing most of the time.  I might even go so far as to say I thrive with it.  But I miss our food adventures.  Mind you, I'm lucky.  In Vermont, we have exceptional access to farm fresh ingredients and I certainly live with a gifted cook.  But "normal life" will resume one day and Harrison made me think a lot about the parameters of future gastronomic exploration.

There are questions I ask myself before applying a GoodReads rating to a book.  Is it a book I will hold up as a standard in measuring others?  That's a 5.  It's been a good year for 5s.  Would I want to read others like it?  That's a 4.  I would probably answer yes for The Raw and the Cooked, though what I really want are books that are like it but better.  So, call it a high 3.


  1. I haven't read this, but I have read some of Harrison's writings. His memoir (Off to the Side), I remember being really good until he became famous and then I had the same idea, "this name dropping has got to stop"

  2. I think, in the long view, the restaurant industry will be fine. It's unfortunate (very) for specific restaurants, but people will always want to not have to cook for themselves.

    The theater industry might not survive, though. I don't know how I feel about that.

    1. The performing arts will survive, too. As with restaurants, it will be tough for smaller companies without substantial endowments. But eventually, the industry will rebound.

  3. I'll have to look this one up. I'm in the mood for some essays.

  4. 'Decay emerges from the scorn of the ordinary' gets my vote! Shame about the name dropping - but I would read this.