Jim Harrison might have been most famous for writing Legends of the Fall, but for food nerds, his biggest moment was "A Really Big Lunch." That’s the title of an essay he wrote for The New Yorker in 2004, detailing the story of (you guessed it) a really big lunch – 37 courses, 11 hours, the recipes drawn from 17 cookbooks spanning hundreds of years of history. As a poet and a novelist, he found deep meaning in his appetites. Chef Mario Batali is also no stranger to the poetry of food, and when Harrison came in for dinner at his restaurant Babbo years ago, they became fast and longtime friends until Harrison died in 2016. Mario sat down with our contributor Melissa Clark to talk about Jim Harrison and what food meant for the writer.
Melissa Clark: Who was Jim Harrison?
Mario Batali: Jim Harrison was a complicated fella. He was a Midwesterner. He was a Michigander. He was a somewhat successful – but not entirely successful – student. He studied in New York. He studied in Michigan. He traveled the world. He was a hunter. He was a fisherman. He was an impassionato of food. He was a fine writer, an excellent poet, a raconteur. A man of many stories, many hats, infinite vision, and one of the most interesting man I've ever met.
MC:How did you two meet?
MB: He dropped a book off called The Road Home – which subsequently became one of my favorite books of all time – at Babbo when he dropped in for dinner the night that I wasn't there. I saw it the next morning on the maître d' stand with a little note and I said, "Jim Harrison was here?" I interrogated everybody. I said, "Are you sure it was Jim Harrison? The guy that wrote this book?" Then I showed them the picture. He's pretty distinguishable, you don't confuse Jim Harrison for anybody else on the planet. I wrote a letter to his agent at that time, and I said, " I don't know how I blew this, but I was not there, it was my only night off that month." I said, "I must meet." I somehow got his email and apparently he doesn't email. But you can email his assistant, she will send him a note by fax machine, he will longhand his response and fax it back to her, and she will send it to you in an email – so it's like a three-day email process. We met over that and I said, "Listen, the next time you come to town we absolutely, simply have to have a meal together."
MC: Where did you go?
MB: We went to Babbo.
MC: And you cooked for him?
MB: I cooked for him like 12 or 13 courses. Every portion of the animal that you could not possibly find in a grocery store.
MC: And he liked that?
MB: Oh, that's his jam! His jam are the innards, the ears, the lobes, the kidneys. He’s a man who understood the value of the life of a beast. And if you took it you simply couldn't just eat the pork chops or the steaks. You would eat every bit of it and in a very European way of looking at it. As opposed to looking at the tripe or the kidneys as the punishment, it was more like, there's less of that so it's the specialty. He had a flavor for all the things that smelled a little poop-y or barn-y or uric, and felt really surprised and delighted when someone would cook them because it was out of fashion when Babbo opened.
MC: Can you give us a snapshot of his food writing? How would all of that translate into and onto the page?
MB: He wrote a whole mess of articles for Esquire that eventually became a book called The Raw and the Cooked. It was his intense cerebral take on food in a way that attached the mind to the physical desire. He was slightly gluttonous, and yet not the level of anything more graphic than complete XXX porn. He was totally obsessed with food and its preparation, and he cooked a bit at home. He understood the technique, but he really understood the motivation of why cooks cook and the generosity of heart that made a cook such an interesting creature.
MC: Food was also his enemy. He wrote a lot about his aging body and not being able to eat and drink the way he used to.
MB: That was only a recent thing. He had a slight case of late onset diabetes so he had to lower himself down. That was only in the last ten years. He lamented it, but that didn't mean that he cut it out completely. There were times when he would have a salad, but generally two or three days later he would have a big chunk of testo, which is the headcheese of everything north of a pig boiled off its head, chopped and seasoned, then put back together in a mold.
MC: So, he found his balance.
MB: Right, he found his balance. He lamented the fact that he was told by his doctors to change, but that didn't change his pattern that much.
MC: What are some of the things you learned from him?
MB: Probably the most significant thing that I could learn from Jim Harrison is when you walked through the forest or went fishing or hunting with him. He was hyper aware of all the sounds of nature to the point that he could pinpoint and capture one little kind of bird that you would not even have noticed while you were walking with him, or the way that the brook babbled at a particular kind of outcrop of rocks or going over a log. The way he understood and had all of that audio filed was something so remarkable. You can hear it when he writes. You can hear his voice in every sentence, but you can also hear his entire audio world which is a rich, amazing tapestry.
Mario Batali is an award-winning chef and cookbook author. Listen to the audio segment above to hear Batali read a selection called “Father-in-Law” written by Jim Harrison. Contributor Melissa Clark left us with a recipe from her new cookbook Dinner: Changing the Game. We believe Jim Harrison would have appreciated her spicy, sweet recipe for Jalapeño-Honey Steak with Cilantro and Lime.
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