Lessons from ‘A Really Big Lunch,' the Late Jim Harrison’s New Book

Credit: Bob Wargo

The novelist, poet, and noted sensualist Jim Harrison died a year ago, on March 26, at the age of 78. The cause of death was a heart attack, but for those who’ve read his food writing, he would have appeared to defy death many times over. His appetite was large and unyielding. He loved innards, confit, and slow-cooked meats. His love was constant. He once ate a 37-course lunch — not long after a meat- and booze-free period meant to check the onset of the Type-2 diabetes that was just around the corner. 

He was a yo-yo dieter by choice. He derided weight loss as an offense to the money (and meals) that went into the creation of his impressive gut. His friend, the novelist Tom McGuane once told him that according to their lifelong correspondence, he’d lost some 1,800 pounds, so he must really be “getting down there.” As he himself remarked, in later years: “Everything is going fairly well except for my health and behavior.”

The new book, A Really Big Lunch: The Roving Gourmand on Food and Life, is a collection of little-known essays published mostly throughout the 2000s. A good number first appeared in the Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant newsletter, which might further recommend them on the strength that they were probably written not for money but passion (and, one suspects, ample potable tribute). “Above all,” Harrison writes, “a gourmand is one who is able to keep eating when no longer hungry.” It’s a good appellation for the author, sort of like an honorary title, smuggling the scent of debauched aspiration beneath its slick veneer. 

The book might have easily been subtitled The Last Gourmand. These days aspirational eating runs exactly counter to Harrison’s precepts, on a morality/health continuum that includes gluten sensitivity, animal ethics, and carbon footprints, not to mention trendy “superfoods." What Harrison shoots and catches he uses in its entirety, he assures his more progressive diners. Fortunately, less constrained friends like Mario Batali show up at his house bearing cartons of two-pound Kobes and white truffles for four-day feasts topped off with three cases of vintage reds. In less extravagant moods, there is comfort to be found in “a primitive soup of shinbones and short ribs, turnips, rutabaga, cabbage, a head of garlic, and some fresh sage.”

The 40-odd pieces here are relentlessly informal and intimate. On occasion, Harrison resembles a fringe dinner guest who conspicuously loosens his belt after the meal, lets off a few squeakers, and makes redoubtable assertions on the back of a cratering wine buzz. But you learn many fine things from the man. Namely:

  • When troubled, just have a glass of wine.
  • Seven jalapenos is one too many in a Thai pork dish.
  • The best beer for beans is either Pacifico or Negra Modelo.

And a remedy that sounds just about right for a battered soul or body:

If you wish to restore your health, take out your largest iron pot and put in two pounds of pork shoulder, Serrano and pasilla (fresh chiles), onions, cumin, lots of garlic, ground Chimayo chile, chopped cilantro, and water. Bring to heat on stove, then put in the oven at 300° F for four hours, after which you jerk the pork and remove the bones. Serve on tortilla chips or Fritos with condiments of chopped onions, cilantro, and grated cheese. Eat a lot and then nap.