Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Reading. Harrison.

In the days after I left university and before I acquired a full-time job, I would go to bookstores and spend hours reading. Walk along the aisles and aisles of books in search of new writers, or old writers who I had read long ago and forgotten. I would stare at the cookbook section, scanning over the gastronomy section with a deep hunger fed by years of reading Gourmet, of reading Laurie Colwin and Elizabeth David and Jeffrey Steingarten. I know I said that I discovered Calvin Trillin in the pages of Gourmet, but now I rather think I found him by browsing through the collections of food essays.

I know for sure this is how I found Jim Harrison, whose Legends of the Fall I had flipped through as a teenager, but it is his food writing that I love most about him. The cover of The Raw and the Cooked shows the author, a man seated at a table bearing plates of meat and beans and grits and what must be collard greens (or some other long-cooked green vegetable) and baskets of cornbread and what might be a bowl of mashed potatoes, a glass of iced tea which is no doubt sweet enough to make your teeth hurt, and a bottle of red wine, a glass of which rests companionably in his hand. In short, my kind of man.

I remember fondly a ten-course meal at the now-vanished Lespinasse in New York City that ended with boxes of petit fours arranged like jewels in a casket, and one of my favorite restaurants in the world is a tiny French restaurant in Seattle where dinner lasts for hours and each course is a mere four or five bites, exquisitely arranged with dots and swirls of complicated sauces and adorned with wisps of fried potatoes. There is a time and place for that kind of food. But reading about that sort of haute cuisine is not fun; it does not make the pulse quicken and the blood heat as slowly as a pot of oxtails braising in Guinness with some sliced onions and a few handfuls of carrot chunks. For that you need Jim Harrison.

I'd like to think, writes Harrison, that my eating and drinking comprise a strenuous search for the genuine, that I am a voyager, an explorer, an adventurer in the ordinary activity of what we do every day: eat and drink...eating well, however simply, is a part of a life fully lived...Eating in America is a grand puzzle of thousands of pieces, with the final picture a diorama of our history led by economic considerations and ethnic influences. This diorama can be as confusing and surreal as sex in our nontraditional society...

I would like to believe that in reading Harrison and others like him, Trillin and Colwin and Steingarten, the pieces of the puzzle will come together in my mind, give me a greater understanding of what it means to eat, and to eat well, and how it pertains to my life and identity as a whole.

Harrison, Jim. The Raw and the Cooked. Grove Press, 2001. p 1.

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