Savoring Jim Harrison's enormous appetite 

Jim Harrison's new collection of food essays, A Really Big Lunch, was released exactly one year after his death. I've been a Harrison fan since I was a teen, and the news of this book excited me beyond reason. Though his calling in life, as he notes, is writing, the force that fuels his writing is an almost superhuman appetite.

Not that I share his appetite, exactly. Harrison and I both hail from the great Midwest, but we were born 37 years and roughly 500 miles apart, and my palate was shaped in an era when kitchen duty often meant selecting boxed "food" from the freezer and popping it into the microwave. I cook from scratch more often than not for my own family, but I've never eaten half of the entrées Harrison describes in these essays, which were written from 1981 to 2014.

In the collection's title essay, Harrison describes in enormous detail a 37-course lunch, shared with 11 companions, that lasted 11 hoursa lunch for which he traveled from his home in Montana to France. The meal opened with four soups, followed by oysters and Camembert, jellied poultry loaf with saffron, Baltic herring with mayonnaise, a calf brain tart, and sole with monkfish livers in champagne sauce. That list describes just a portion of the first of the four "services" over which the meal's 11 courses were delivered. I read parts of the menu aloud to my kids, ages 7 and 10, who accused me of playing a belated April Fool's joke until they skimmed the menu—included in full in the book—for themselves.

In an earlier essay, the actor Jack Nicholson declares, after a meal shared with Harrison, "Only in the Midwest is overeating still considered an act of heroism." While Harrison confesses that his indulgence of food leads him into gluttony on a daily basis, his appetite goes beyond the carnal. "I have long since publicly admitted that I seek spirituality through food and wine," he writes. It is this kind of reverence for food that makes this book such a transcendent read, even if normal humans would be hard pressed to consume some of the meals Harrison describes here.

I'd be remiss if I didn't slap a warning on A Really Big Lunch. If you haven't already intuited this, vegetarians, dieters and people recovering from a toxic relationship with red wine, beware. This book may repel you or, worse, leave you hungry and thirsty in ways that could jeopardize your health. I rarely drink wine of any sort, but halfway through A Really Big Lunch I bought a bottle of the only red wine I know by name: the Red and Green Zinfandel my partner and I order every time we splurge on a meal at Scotty's Table. I sipped it with new appreciation as I returned to reading the names of wines and foods I can't even pronounce.

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All this led me to wonder: What sort of toll must this kind of appetite take on a body? Harrison wonders the same when he says, "I'm puzzled. Perhaps I have eaten too much of the world?"

Though the essays are not arranged in strict chronological order, Harrison writes as they progress about being diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes late in life. To his great heartbreak, the doctor orders him to reduce his wine intake to no more than a bottle for every two hours he spends walking. Jim works hard to earn a bottle or two a day, and to learn to savor those bottles—an amount of wine he'd have gulped in half an hour prior to his diagnosis. The nearer we get to the end of the book, the more he discusses various maladies, from the diabetes to shingles to spinal surgery.

The humor and insight that Harrison brings to the end of his life is, for me, the most nourishing part of the book. "Everything living ends up as a turd of sorts," he writes. Though I haven't done a proper count, I would guess that "turd" and "bird" are two of the most frequently used words in this book, which illustrates the way Jim connects all things natural, from the scatological to the ornithological. His appetite never waivers, but I could feel him pulling skyward as the chapters flew by.

Devour this book one course (or chapter) at a time. It's like a rich meal, best savored so that no word goes unappreciated. If you can't control yourself and read it all in one brief binge, you risk becoming infected, as I have, with Harrison's rambling voice.

"Your meals in life are numbered and the number is diminishing," he tells us. "Get at it."

In a life too short for all the adventures, drinks, lunches, loves and books we desire to consume, Jim Harrison reminds us not to waste another day. Wake up. Go too far. Dig in.

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