If You Haven't Read Jim Harrison's Food Writing, Start Here

April  4, 2017

Over the weekend, I bought a copy of Jim Harrison’s A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand. I’m thrilled to dive in. The book, with an introduction from his friend Mario Batali, is a compilation of 47 of the novelist and poet's essays on food and drink, published between 1981 and 2015.

Harrison, who died a year ago of heart failure at age 78, had 12 novels plus numerous novellas and books of poetry under his belt. But I liked his voice best when he wrote about food, most of his essays appearing in the pages of Esquire and Men’s Journal. Lately, though, I've found that a lot of people—especially young food writers I know—have never even heard his name.

I first arrived at Harrison's writing a few years ago while dorkily poring over New Yorker archives. At that point, I came across the 2004 piece that forms the backbone of his essay collection, “A Really Big Lunch." It’s a pretty crazy narrative of gluttony, wherein Harrison makes his way through a hideously expensive 37-course lunch in Burgundy, a meal with recipes made from cookbooks published centuries ago. As I dug deeper into his work, I found that Harrison realized new possibilities for food writing, convincing me that food writing could touch on so many vectors and subjects while remaining vivid, insightful, and wryly funny.

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I'll probably never stop reading Harrison—he was so prolific that making my way through his whole oeuvre seems like a fool's errand—but his is the kind of writing I continually read and learn from. Here's some of Harrison's best writing on food and drink. If you haven’t yet encountered his writing, this is a good place to begin. I hope it leads you have as much enthusiasm for his writing as I do.

A Man’s Guide to Drinking, Men’s Journal

“Hangovers have all the charm of a rattlesnake cracking its jaws as it swallows a toad.”

Older Fishing, Midcurrent

“Fishing is a mental feast.”

Jim Harrison’s 13 Rules for Drinking, Men’s Journal

“1. Drinking causes drinking. Heavy drinking causes heavy drinking. Light drinking causes light drinking.”

Courage and Survival, Brick

“Since diagnosis I have been sitting and brooding for a month in my studio like an infected mushroom. I’d like to be writing a madrigal but I don’t know how, a sixteenth-century Roman madrigal in honour of the exquisite Italian lamb shank recipe my wife made for me from a Batali book. With it I drank a simple Brouilly, a French light red, a bistro wine designed for summer months. Humble as they are I favour the shanks over the leg because the flavour is more intense.”

Jim Harrison, The Art of Fiction No. 104, The Paris Review

“When you bear down that hard on one thing—on your fiction or your poetry—then you have to have something like cooking, bird hunting or fishing that offers a commensurate and restorative joy. It comes from that notion that the way you eat bespeaks your entire attitude toward life.”

A Really Big Lunch, The New Yorker

"Is there an interior logic to overeating, or does gluttony, like sex, wander around in a messy void, utterly resistant to our attempts to make sense of it?"

A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand is now available for purchase. What's your favorite thing Jim Harrison has ever written? Let us know in the comments.

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    Mayukh Sen
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


amysarah April 5, 2017
Glad to see Jim Harrison covered – definitely another perspective on cooking and food here. I was very lucky to meet him about 15 yrs ago - I'd read and enjoyed some of his work. But my husband had been a great fan for 20+ yrs, read all his fiction - but didn't imagine he'd appreciate being 'bothered' by a stranger at an event. When he finally saw him alone for a moment and politely approached, JH couldn’t have been more gracious and personable. One of those rare times when meeting someone well known that you've admired - and he lives up to your best expectations. I've liked his writing even more ever since.
Mayukh S. April 5, 2017
That's a lovely anecdote, amysarah. I'm not sure if you've read this Outside profile of him from a few years ago, but if not, I wonder how it squares with your husband's memory and impression of him:
amysarah April 6, 2017
Great article - thx for the link! Our JH encounter only lasted 5-10 minutes, but the impression of expansiveness certainly holds. Easily engaged in conversation, no distancing 'big man' airs (young celeb writer types, take a lesson!) In mundane details, we also met in NYC and he was using a cane at the time.

I loved this line from the article: 'Harrison lives close to his mind.' Great description. Anyway, thx again for your piece - hope you'll do more on interesting food-world adjacent figures.
La M. April 5, 2017
A Really Big Lunch is also included in the must read for any foodie: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink
Whiteantlers April 5, 2017
Good one, La Muse Blue!
Whiteantlers April 4, 2017
OMG! I remember reading that wonderful piece in The New Yorker, too, when it was still full of good writing and short fiction. This man was a powerhouse of words, ideas and knew how to be alive no matter what he was doing. Thank you for introducing Mr. Harrison here.
Eileen W. April 4, 2017
Jim Harrison's "The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand" is a life-changing read, not to mention an excellent source for interesting cookbooks -- added at least ten to my shelves by the end of the book. When life seems surreal, Jim Harrison's words bring you back to reality.