The Raw and the Cooked
by Robert Baldwin
Robert Baldwin takes a close look at
Jim Harrison's latest gastronomic endeavor
Jim Harrison, brown and round on 10,000 calories per day, celebrates the power of food and drink in "The Raw and the Cooked." Collected in part from his long-running column of the same name in Esquire, it’s a muscular selection pondering mortality, the glories of garlic and red wine, the extraordinary taste of game birds fattened on a variety of nuts, seeds and berries that cannot be compared to factory-processed poultry. His theory? "Eat or die." By which he does not mean eat anything, most certainly not a pit-fry burger snarfed behind the wheel, or soggy meatloaf nuked in front of the tube. Instead one must eat for taste and flavor and joy, something the French and Italians figured out long ago, the same folks known for taking off the month of August each year as anything else is unseemly and uncivilized. For Harrison, it’s as simple as this: meals are matters of peace and restoration.
"Let’s not dwell on the negative, the wine of illusion. You begin with simple truths in food. For instance, peeling sweetbreads is not really exercise. When you’re trimming a two-pound porterhouse, don’t make those false, hyperkinetic motions favored by countermen in delicatessens. Either trim it or skip trimming. Eat the delicious fat and take a 10-mile walk. Reach into your memory and come up with what restored you, what helped you recover from the sheer hellishness of life, what food actually regenerated your system, not so you can leap tall buildings but so you can turn off the alarm clock with vigor."
Power food, he calls it, as just getting out of bed can pose the most insurmountable hurdle in the dark of a winter morning. This is something Harrison knows well, having suffered from bouts of depression, cocaine, and Canadian whiskey, and not necessarily in that order. He recounts an unsuccessful operation on his googly eye at age 18 that triggered his first depression, made worse by "Joyce, Faulkner and Dostoyevsky," and a drive north into the woods to escape with a .22 Remington and a fishing pole. "The Remington was a bit ambivalent, as hunting was months away, but instead of myself I shot a grouse." He warns us of institutions that turn good wine into distilled water with the hope everyone will drink it. "You have to hold out for the wine, even blood, nights that are actually dark, bears that aren’t teddy, gritty women like you actually know. . . ." Hold out he does—for green grapes soaked in Calvados, lamb shanks with white beans and garlic, a cassoulet requiring three hours of walking before dinner to eat it and an hour afterward to digest it, a massive veal chop with spinach sautéed in oil and garlic, a roasted guinea hen, fois gras, a spider-crab timbale, a tandoori monkfish, wild oysters with morels, lemongrass bouillon and baby favas, mango and passion fruit with crème anglaise.
Harrison worries that America will Americanize France into another New Jersey. Refuge, limited as it is, exists in the wild:
"Of course it goes without saying that I’m willingly a fool and it is perhaps primitive to think there is secret power in eating wild food, but then the power is in the taste that enlivens the imagination and increases reverence for life. I think I have told you that of the dozens of times I’ve eaten bear I have bear dreams. We must bow Buddhist style to what we properly cook and eat. It is hard to bow at McDonald’s. My waking and sleeping hours are full of birds. In the Middle Ages hell was conceived as a place without birds. I actually spoke my limited French to three crows near the graves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in that cemetery near Montparnasse. Crows and ravens absolutely love to eat young doves and pigeons so we have something in common."
The book moves rapidly like this, a series of tangential circles, interconnected, leaping back and forth like misfiring thoughts of the human brain. Except there’s nothing misfired. Each sentence is a direct hit on its intended target. His take on a form of poetry from India where each line of verse leads to a new line of thought, something he did to perfection in "Wolf," his so-called false memoir. There’s nothing false in "The Raw and the Cooked." It’s straight to the heart, credits reputable cookbooks by name and title you need but don’t have, and leaves you content and full, but wanting more.
Denver Attorney Robert Baldwin is the author several novels, including "The Water Theif."