American author Jim Harrison, who died last year at the age of 78, considered himself primarily a poet who occasionally ventured into other genres, but his large body of work includes novels, novellas, short stories and essays. He co-wrote the screenplay for the motion picture “Legends of the Fall,” based on his novella of the same title.
One of Harrison’s favorite essay topics was food (both preparation and consumption) and its relationship to his philosophy of life. “A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from a Roving Gourmand,” published on the first anniversary of his death, is the second collection of such essays, the first being “The Raw and the Cooked,” published in 1992.
The book’s eponymous chapter describes a lunch shared in November 2003 by Harrison and 11 other self-described “disciples of Gourmandaise” at a château in Burgundy. The menu was based on recipes derived from classic French cookbooks published between 1654 and 1823. The lunch consisted of 37 courses and “only” (Harrison’s word) 13 wines, poured in great abundance.
The meal was prepared by 39 cooks over a 3-day period, and took 11 hours to consume. The menu included items as ordinary sounding as “oysters on Camembert toast,” as exotic as “Terrine of calf’s brains with shelled peas,” and every conceivable bit of gastronomic extravagance in between. The last of six dessert items was a “towering structure of every fruit imaginable in every manner imaginable.”
Of the meal and its consumption Harrison wrote, “If I announce that I and 11 other diners shared a 37 course lunch that likely cost as much as a new Volvo station wagon, those of a critical nature will let their minds run in tiny, aghast circles of condemnation. My response to them is that none of us … wanted a new Volvo. We wanted only lunch.”
Harrison’s writing skills are prodigious, as they need to be for him to present his observations on food and life in a manner that is both readable and insightful.
“A Really Big Lunch” is funny, wry, descriptive and reflective. Like most of Harrison’s writing, the book is studded with little gems such as “Good food is a benign weapon against the sodden way we live,” and “Life is a near-death experience, and our devious minds will do anything to make it more interesting.”
For the reader new to Harrison, this book would be an accessible place to start. For those who have enjoyed Harrison’s work in the past, it is a fitting capstone for his intriguing life and productive career.