The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand
by Jim Harrison
Grove Press, 2002
Review by James Miranda
As a kid, I was obsessed with Roald Dahl's (dare I say?) masterpiece of a children's book, Danny, The Champion of the World. Part of this infatuation may have been the sad romance of a boy and his father living alone in an old gypsy vardo somewhere in the English countryside—a two-person family in desperate need of maternal touch whose daily regiment consisted of fixing old cars and poaching fat pheasants from the estate of a vile and unpredictable landlord. This sounds like something that would have attracted a pre-adolescent me. But in retrospect, when I consider my eclectic and at times regrettable eating habits—habits that started at a young age—it may very well have been the promise of raisin-stuffed pheasant that I found so attractive: the meal of crispy-skinned game bird cooked in its own bone-simmered stock that made all that risky poaching worthwhile.
This may also explain the latter-day, gastro-literary hero that I found in Jim Harrison. In the age of molecular gastronomy and celebrity chefs, local food movements and the chic city stylings of comfort-food bistros, we would do well to revisit an early master of the literary food craze, a man with a flare for the bacchanalian, and the iron gut and Epicurean wit to back it up. Though Harrison has penned a dozen novels, another dozen novellas ("Legends of the Fall" being perhaps the most well-known), seventeen collections of poetry, three works of nonfiction, a children's book, numerous screenplays, as well as articles and essays which have appeared in newspapers and magazines around the globe; it is to the larger-than-life personality and appetite found in his food-writing that I find myself drawn again and again. The bulk of this writing can be found in his collection The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand. Equal parts cookbook, correspondence, travelogue, memoir, ecological/political musing, and overall shrine to excess; The Raw and the Cooked is a testament to the ways in which food (and drink) can fuel a writer's life, both literally and figuratively.
It's hard not to take an immediate liking to a man who, in an article for The New Yorker, once wrote: "If I were given the dreary six months to live, I'd head at once to Lyons and make my way from bistro to bistro in a big stroller pushed by a vegetarian." What we find in The Raw and the Cooked is a cavalier Harrison who never flags in his reverence for what sustains and spoils us. Harrison's recurring mantra, "Eat or Die," serves as both his black-and-white summation of the human condition and a challenge to the reader—a pithy, swashbuckling koan of the kind that might make for epic nights if not bleary-eyed next mornings. In this challenge, Harrison comes fully prepared, his freezer inventory a testament to his quest for a life well-lived:
local barnyard capons; the latest shipment of prime veal from Summerfield Farms, which includes sweetbreads, shanks for osso bucco, liver, chops, kidneys; and a little seafood from Charles Morgan in Destin, Florida—triggerfish, a few small red snapper, conch for chowder and fritters. There are also two shelves of favorites—rabbit, grouse, woodcock, snipe, venison, dove, chukar, duck, quail—and containers of fish fumet, various glacés and stocks, including one made from sixteen woodcock that deserves its own armed guard. I also traded my alfalfa crop for a wild steer, which is stored at my secretary's home due to lack of space.
Granted, no pheasant, but maybe it was just a slow season that year. These mouth-watering inventories come full-bore in a collection that chronicles thirty-course meals and mythic bouts of wining and dining.
But perhaps what is most compelling about Harrison's writing in The Raw and the Cooked, what legitimizes a revisit nearly a decade after it was first made available in paperback, is his acute awareness of how food, and all its attendant metaphors, shape our day-to-day perception of human existence. There are writers of late who can't help but dapple in this inviting trope (I think most recently of Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones & Butter or Bill Buford's Heat), but nowhere is this notion charged with the urgency that Harrison lends it. Thus lines like "Where have all the thighs gone? Where are the thighs of yesteryear?" in a tongue-in-cheek section lamenting the disappearance of the thigh (be it turkey, duck, or chicken) as a stand-alone entrée in restaurants, takes on a rueful, meditative quality, existential in scope. Or consider the following:
Lord Death is a real big eater. In dimmish moments when I think I will not be here with you always, it occurs to me you will not always be here with yourself. Simple as that.
Like many of the celebrity chef best-sellers churned out these days, there are star appearances, scandalous debacles, exotic locales, and the like in The Raw and the Cooked; but there is also, behind it all, a thoughtful and philosophical man who has spent a lifetime refining his craft and expanding his culinary knowledge of the world, a man who considers himself an adventurer and explorer "in the ordinary activity of what we do every day: eat and drink." It's well worth taking the time to see where those adventures have led him.