Gut Buster

Jim Harrison indulges huge appetites, displays tough-guy charm and a warm heart and drops names aplenty in his new collection of essays.

Stories? Jim Harrison's got A million of 'em, and he's not shy about sharing. On our semi-annual tours of Tucson topless bars, Harrison never fails to regale me with his tales of love and lust, literature and licentiousness. In between ogles, he'll enthrall me with anecdotes and asides, covering everything from Chinese poetry and Native American politics to the absurdity of anti-smoking laws and the absolute necessity of Neruda.

A man of multiple passions, Harrison is vociferous about his appetites, both in person and on paper. And serving as a binder for all the talk of art and love is plenty of talk about food: Wine regions and vintages, cooking techniques, menus, memorable gastronomic events and, perhaps most colorfully, notable food personalities, like the girl in Key West who's got a special way with mole.

A poet and novelist of primal importance perhaps best known for his novella Legends of the Fall, Harrison has written extensively on food for such publications as Smart, Esquire and Men's Journal. Now, that writing has been collected in The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand.

While the 41 pieces in the collection do share food as a common element, this is, in fact, much more than a food book. Indeed, calling The Raw and the Cooked a book about food is like calling The Old Man and the Sea a book about fishing. Dig this characteristic sample from "Heart Food in L.A.":

"Returning to the hotel each night, tummy full, brown, and round as a floating Botero model, I'd read until 3:00 or 4:00 A.M., until the words drifted away from the sentences and the paragraphs slipped down to my chest, where they stuck attractively to the splotches of red wine ... I wept bitterly when Neruda died again, as he must, over and over for each reader. I dried my tears by grinding my face into the pillow and sticking it out the window, where the smog had cleared and the night's scent was oceanic, flower-laden."

Botero and Neruda, red wine and weeping: clearly, The Raw and the Cooked is about much more than food.

In Harrison's fiction, he drops the names of dishes and drinks with high frequency. In his non-fiction (and in person), the name-dropping expands to include personalities. Once, while we sipped drinks on the back patio of his casita in Patagonia, Harrison told me the story of how, from the same patio, he looked up one afternoon to see George Plimpton riding by on horseback.

That the two old friends were until then ignorant of each other's proximity, and that they should run into each other in such a fanciful way, made perfect sense in Harrison's graceful storytelling.

That same sense of serendipity and playful name-dropping is on display throughout The Raw and the Cooked. Whether he's dining in Paris with Francis Ford Coppola, Danny DeVito and Russell Crowe, or feasting with Mario Batali, Harrison's names drop fast and furious--Orson Welles, John Huston, Jack Nicholson, Jeanne Moreau ... along with the food, Harrison serves plenty of delightful dish.

When he is writing specifically about food, it's not all foie gras and truffles. Harrison's stature as a gourmet doesn't prevent him from extolling the virtues of more proletarian fare like his wife's meatloaf. (In person, he's also favorably reviewed the meatloaf at his local greasy spoon, where the locals call him "Don Jim".) And in an essay originally written for Michael Ondaatje's magazine Brick, Harrison not only expresses his love for the simple meatball, but also provides the simplest of recipes.

Whether he's describing the heartbreak of checking into a dry hotel, arguing the ability of wine to make a potentially deadly storm soothing, battling demons and a bull on the San Pedro, or offering another version of how he lost one of his eyes, Harrison's writing is full of power and passion.

Like a one-eyed, walking Buddha, Harrison sees more with his one good eye than most of us see with two, and, lucky for us, he's damn good at getting it all down on paper. Like his fiction and poetry, The Raw and the Cooked reveals not only Harrison's huge appetites, but also his huge heart.

And that girl with the special way of serving mole? Don't be shy about asking Harrison to tell the story. Just make sure you've finished eating first.