Friday, September 16, 2016

Why I hate Jim Harrison's book "The Raw and the Cooked"

Do not read this book!
Jim Harrison is a name-dropper: he likes to show how many famous people he knows in Hollywood and New York, and how many famous cookbook authors he has read:

  • "Recently, at a dinner in Hollywood, I ate far less than Bill Murray ... . We were at the Muse, an odd name for a restaurant said to be favored by Madonna, and I was seated directly across from Winona Ryder, a fetching and intelligent lass who, distractingly enough, was more interested in books than food." (p. 96). 
  • "Later John Huston told me that he and Welles were always trying to stick each other with the tab and once faked simultaneous heart attacks at a restaurant in Paris. (p. 18). 
  • "For duck thighs and legs you need go no further than Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of South-West France, or to Madeleine Kamman. Alice Waters bones rabbit thighs and grills them with pancetta and fresh sage. I prefer my thighs with two wines I got from Waters’s husband, the wine merchant Stephen Singer: any Bandol, or a Chianti called Isole." (p. 74). 
Jim Harrison is pretentious and self-absorbed, and considers himself far above other more ordinary people. So he's very obsessed with the "genuine," the "authentic."

  • "My search for the genuine in the food in my life came about slowly and certainly wasn’t a product of how I grew up in the upper Midwest, a region notorious for its bad food." (p. 2). 
  • "A T-bone has to be better for you than the $28 sea-urchin custard that is all the current rage in Gotham. Mind you, I have eaten versions of this dish in Paris and its alter ego, Los Angeles, and wouldn’t feed it to Donald Trump, Tom Wolfe, or Hitler’s daughter, Gretchen, who may also work for Sony." (p. 61). 

He uses gratuitous stereotypes to show how superior he is to other people:

  • "Hundreds of dweeb bird-watchers" appeared one day near his property in Patagonia, Arizona, and he makes fun of them. (p. 9) OK, I have spent time in Patgonia, Arizona, just in order to see birds, so maybe I'm especially sensitive on this issue. 
  • "The flip side of the Health Bore is, after all, the Food Bully." (p. 17). 
  • "Who are these WASP eco-yuppies?"  (p. 57).
  • "Nowadays a social conscience is a disease you can purportedly cure by sending off a check for the rain forest." (p. 59).
  • "Frankly, I was fasting for wisdom." (p. 65)

His language and metaphors are often trite as well as supercilious. He thinks he's Hemingway. Just talking about how you go fishing in Northern Michigan or Key West, Florida, doesn't make you Hemingway:

  • "After building a fire out of mesquite and iron-wood, we marinated the lamb in garlic, white wine, olive oil, and chopped cilantro and cooked the shrimp. As an afterthought, we made a quart of hot Argentine chimichurri as a sauce to serve with the roasted lamb." (p. 92). 
  • "With ice fishing, you dress up bulky like an astronaut and stare through a round black hole you’ve spudded in the ice." (p. 33). 
  • "Now you can eat better in Key West than in any town I can think of in America fifteen or twenty times its size. Of course, there was a period in the early seventies when one might fly-fish for tarpon on three hits of windowpane acid backed up by a megaphone bomber of Colombian buds that required nine papers and an hour to roll." (p. 34). 

Also, he likes show-off references and generalizations:

  • "Three ounces of Chablis are far less interesting and beneficial than a magnum of Bordeaux." (p. 27). 
  • "But then one of the main reasons I like Lincoln is that it is not Manhattan. On your first visit you will sense a haunting boredom that, on following trips, you will recognize as Life herself without rabid hype." (p. 57).  

He offers long lists of fancy food and recipes just to impress the reader -- including restaurants, cookbook authors, recipes, ingredients, and chefs of note. I'm not impressed:

  • "Posole is a generic dish, and I’ve eaten dozens of versions and made an equal number of my own. The best are to be found in Mexico. Menudo is a similar dish and a fabulous restorative, the main ingredient being tripe. If you are in Chicago, you can eat your fill at Rick and Deann Bayless’s splendid Mexican restaurant, Frontera Grill. I’ve made a good start on the project." (p. 24). 
  • "My wife had preserved some lemon, so I went to the cellar for a capon as she planned a Paula Wolfert North African dish. Wolfert and Villas are food people whom you tend to 'believe' rather than simply admire. In this same noble lineage is Patience Gray, a wandering Bruce Chatwin of food." (p. 19). 
  • "A few weeks ago, while preparing roast quail stuffed with leeks and sweetbreads (served on a polenta pancake with a heavily truffled woodcock sauce), I realized that it was far too late for me to cooperate politically or artistically with a modern sensibility that so apparently demands the cutest forms of science fiction for its soul food." (p. 58). 

In fact, much of what he does seems to be designed to create an impression, not really to communicate anything in particular. His meanderings about his weight problem, his gout, and his ego are all ultimately boring. I admit that there's a faint chance that he's sometimes trying to be funny, but his egomania overwhelms any such effort.

Do you notice that all these quotes come from the first 100 pages or so of the book (which has something like 266 pages)? It's because I am not sure I will be able to keep reading Harrison's annoying, self-aggrandizing, and often trite prose. I'm supposed to read The Raw and the Cooked for my next culinary reading group meeting next week. Maybe I'll make another effort later.

Ironically, my other book club read Harrison's Brown Dog Novellas a year or so ago, and I hated that too. "These novellas did not make me wish to read more of his work," I wrote then in this blog post. I was right.


raidergirl3 said...

Well done! I listened to a Harrison book earlier this year, The Great Leader, and hated it. I picked it because it was a mystery, but the misogyny was so bad.
He seems to have some fans, and they love all his stuff, but I didn't get the appeal, and I'm glad to see you got the same (poor) impression I had.

Shaheen said...

I don't know this person as I live in the UK, but thanks to you I do not wish to know him or his book, I love the honesty in the way you have expressed your dislike for the book..