Jim Harrison: Writing to Whet the Appetite

While in high school in Michigan, Jim Harrison dreamed of being friends with Rabelais. But Gargantua is who actually comes to mind when thinking of the American writer, whose classic Legends of the Fall was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. A lover of French cuisine, an insatiable gourmand, and an almost religiously fervent drinker who passed away in 2016, he would have been 85 this December 11. He left behind two delicious collections of articles on the art of eating with gusto without looking like “a pathetic piggy.”
“If you’re emotionally distressed, drink a big glass of French red wine,” Jim Harrison – photographed here in 2002 – used to say. © Ulf Andersen/Gamma

One day, a black bear ambled into the village of Grand Marais on the banks of Lake Superior where Jim Harrison lived, striking fear into the community. A group of hunters soon arrived with their dogs to track the marauding animal. On that afternoon in 1991, the American writer was at a saloon, reminiscing about the three days he had just spent in Paris: choucroute garnie at Brasserie Lipp, lentil salad with beef fillet at Les Gourmets des Ternes, foie gras and tête de veau with gribiche sauce at Le Voltaire, and poached ray salad, roast pigeon, and fig tart at Le Bellecour, a Lyonnais restaurant next to Les Invalides… The sound of barking mutts outside the bar interrupted his daydreaming. “Suddenly,” wrote the gourmand in Esquire, “I was a very long way from Paris.”

That’s Jim Harrison’s trademark. From one page to the next, he jumps from the backwoods of Michigan to the finest restaurants in the French capital, from hunting woodcock – his favorite game – to lunching at the Fouquet’s on the Champs-Elysées, tucking into eggplant flan, goose confit, and fried potatoes. “It has occurred to me that I love both wild food and sophisticated food,” he said in 1999 to his friend and fellow feaster Gérard Oberlé, a French author and collector of ancient books, to whom his collection The Raw and the Cooked is dedicated. “It’s the ‘suburbs’ in between that are boring.”

These “suburbs” that inspired such disdain included “dead food,” fast-food chains, Spam, green Jell-O, granola, and cuisine minceur or weight-loss cooking, which he described as “a method even more fraudulent than psychiatry.” According to his periodic table of food, ready-meals belonged at the bottom of the trash can. The height of excellence was French gastronomy – particularly Bandol red wine from Domaine Tempier in the Var département and truffled chicken by Marc Meneau, a triple Michelin-star chef (who died in December 2020), at the restaurant L’Espérance in Saint-Père-sous-Vézelay in Burgundy.

A Rural Gourmand

Ironically, Jim Harrison fell in love with French cuisine in New York. He grew up in rural Michigan, raised on salted cod and herring by his Swedish grandparents, and was introduced to subsistence farming by his father, who taught him foraging, gardening, hunting, and fishing. His parents were also avid readers, and after discovering Keats at the age of 14, the young James contracted “the disease of writing.” In high school, he “flunked chemistry” while reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (“the book was inscrutable”) and imagined himself as Don Juan at a café on the Left Bank.

Jim Harrison (left), returns from fishing with his brother and sister. © Special Collections and University Archives, Grand Valley State University
On his high school football team in Haslett, Michigan, Jim Harrison “[got] his face crushed” on the field. The experience pushed him to turn instead to literature. © Special Collections and University Archives, Grand Valley State University

He later studied comparative literature at Michigan State University, where he spent two years trying to learn French with little success. (However, this did not stop him from quoting Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Char, and Apollinaire.) He then roamed from New York to Boston, published a collection of poetry and ended up at Stony Brook University in Long Island, where he was catapulted into a position of assistant professor. Tasked with hosting a visit from French poet Eugène Guillevic, he took him to Brittany du Soir, a Breton bistro in Manhattan. “He demonstrated to me just how much a poet should properly eat and drink,” he wrote in 1999. “From that point on, I could never resume my career as a male model.”

Living Large

Jim Harrison never stopped eating and drinking. After endless belt-tightening came the first literary successes, writing grants, and Hollywood screenwriting commissions. The author who used to hunt to feed his family saw his quality of life improve significantly. He attended copious dinners, took fishing trips to Key West, and went hunting in Montana with his friends, landscape artist Russel Chatham, writer Thomas McGuane, and Guy de la Valdène, a French aristocrat, author, and wildlife photographer born in the United States. He only had two rules. Number 1: “Small portions are for smallish and inactive people.” And number 2: “No one is allowed to use cocaine before the meal when I cook.”

Jim Harrison and his gang of gourmands – from left: Guy de la Valdène, Thomas McGuane, and Russell Chatham – in Key West, 1988. © Stephen Collector
Jim Harrison at the stove, in the mid-1970s, captured by his wife Linda. © Harrison Family

Having been penniless when first visiting Paris, he saw a new side to the city. “I discovered both of us had changed,” he wrote in 1991. “Big Jim” walked for miles (to work up an appetite) and lived like a king. First-class flights with Air France and rooms at the Plaza Athénée were paid for by the studios, and he always found time between two press interviews for an impromptu picnic in the food aisle of the chic Bon Marché department store. The improvised menu would include foie gras, cheese, bread, and two or three bottles of Gigondas wine. “And I have to eat everything because my room has no refrigerator,” he protested. “The wine will keep a couple of hours but not much longer.”

Jim Harrison found any excuse to cross the Atlantic, whether an assignment from Esquire, a meet-up with his friend Jeanne Moreau, or a ceremony to receive a medal from the City of Lyon in 2007. During the 1990s, he was part of the jury – along with Alain Robbe-Grillet and Gérard Depardieu – of a book and wine festival in Saumur. It was there that he met Gérard Oberlé, and the pair explored Burgundy together. “I would make him head cheese and herring for breakfast, which reminded him of his mother’s Swedish roots,” said the French writer in an interview with daily newspaper Libération. “Jim and I were as thick as thieves!”

A Culinary Tour de France

Throughout his extensive road trips, Jim Harrison had already memorized the finest food stores and restaurants in the United States. He did the same in France, delving into its regions and local specialities to discover Cancale oysters, Ossau-Hiraty cheese from the Basque Country, and bouillabaisse fish stew cooked up by chef Gérald Passedat in Marseille. And then, of course, there were the local markets, which he far preferred to the country’s cathedrals and museums. In a comical scene with erotic undertones written for Martha Stewart Living, he described a rotisserie on the market in Aix-en-Provence. Sitting on on the church steps listening to Bach, Jim Harrison, of ample paunch and walrus-like bristles, shamelessly ogled the roasting chickens.

Jim Harrison in Paris, 1971. He hated the term “Francophile,” but regretted that Americans could not just drive to France! © Harrison Family
Jim Harrison and French author Gérard Oberlé shared a passion for game birds, endless meals, and bottomless bottles. © Gérard Oberlé

This tour of Gaul culminated on a Monday, November 17, 2003. The American author, Gérard Oberlé, and a dozen other carefully selected hedonists all met at L’Espérance, Marc Meneau’s restaurant, for a highly singular meal. They were greeted by an epic, 37-course feast inspired by ancient cookbooks, including Les Délices de la campagne by Nicolas de Bonnefons, an agronomist and valet to Louis XIV. A “really big lunch,” wrote Jim Harrison in The New Yorker, washed down with nineteen different wines!

From the clear soup of poultry to a towering fruit pyramid, the guests spent thirteen hours around the table. But even this was no match for Jim Harrison, who was never short of a pithy remark: “If I were given the dreary six months to live, I’d head at once to Lyon and make my way from bistro to bistro in a big stroller pushed by a vegetarian.”

The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand by Jim Harrison, Grove Press, 2002.

A Really Big Lunch: The Roving Gourmand on Food and Life by Jim Harrison, Grove Press, 2017.

Article published in the June 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.