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Jim Harrison: On the virtues of gluttony

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By Doug Hare EBS Staff

Nearly a year after his death at the ripe age of 79, Grove Press has published Jim Harrison’s first posthumous work, “A Really Big Lunch: The Roving Gourmand on Food and Life.” This collection of Harrison’s best culinary writings is ostensibly about the art of feasting, recounting meals with enough courses to last 10 hours and enough fine wine consumed to inebriate a small horse.

In many ways, this publication is a sequel to Harrison’s “The Raw and Uncooked” (2001) which gained him a reputation as a renegade food writer. With a similar mixture of irreverence and exuberance, Harrison’s latest unabashedly recommends a Bacchanalian lifestyle: “Any fool knows that red wine is the best energy drink if you keep it within two bottles.”

In the introduction, written by master chef and longtime friend Mario Batali, we are reminded of Harrison’s legendary, insatiable appetite for food, wine, hunting and fishing; women and raw life experience without mediation.

At times, some of this collection sounds like a manifesto for a modern version of Epicurean hedonism, while other selections are more of a standup routine—mocking teetotalers, wine snobs and the vagaries of American cuisine. It’s always refreshing to read someone talk about fine dining and wine with unguarded enthusiasm and without the hint of pretense. 

Whether he’s ruminating about how to cook rattlesnakes, explaining his distaste for bland white wine, or recounting meals that would make Louis XIV blush, his salty wit, youthful curiosity, and mastery of the cadences of the English language are always coming up with sentences that only Harrison could have written: 

“I have often thought that if I received an early warning that I would pass on sooner than later, I’d get myself to Lyon and eat for a solid month, after which they could tip me from a gurney into the blessed Rhone. Maybe I’d swim all the way downstream to Arles for my last supper.” 

Harrison’s views on the visceral importance of eating and drinking well are indelibly tied together with his other idiosyncratic views about how to approach life. His discussions of food and drink, whether mundane, exotic or exquisite, always seem to meander into asides about art, politics, sexuality, mortality and religion. 

It won’t ruin the book to mention that for Harrison food and drink were a metaphor for life broadly construed. Whether you agree with him or not, it’s hard not to appreciate his unapologetic gusto for his version of the good life.

Of course, gluttony has always been considered by many to be a vice. In the pieces written later in his career, and mostly previously unpublished, we find the beloved poet and novelist’s body succumbing to shingles, diabetes, gout and the ailments of old age. The ravages of time and excess seem to have offered Harrison his last doubts about his own decadent lifestyle. 

In the end, he puts to rest any regrets and offers a lesson, if cautionary tale, about comingling spirituality, food and drink without reservation. 

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