Jim Harrison’s Guide to Eating Vividly

An essay from a new posthumous collection of writings by the legendary food and drinks authority.

Courtesy Amy Hundley

One wonders, doesn’t one, why we are insufficiently wily in foreign affairs. Without question it is because we do not eat vividly. We are always being euchred out by people with superior diets with more interesting food, technically speaking of course. Mitterrand made mincemeat of Reagan in Europe mostly because of the kind of superior foods he eats. Let’s face it Mitterrand drinks superior Bordeaux, Burgundy, eats garlic, truffles, goose livers, various forms of tripe, sweetbreads, intestines, jellied calves feet for midnight snacks. By contrast the sluggish Germans what do they eat or more importantly look at Reagan’s diet, it’s a nightmare, though he stops short of the ketchup and cottage cheese trip that Nixon had which isn’t as bad as some people say it is, it’s just not something you’d want to eat more than once in your life but Reagan’s into a lot of bran flakes, very lean dryish turkey breasts, probably no garlic whatsoever, lean fish. So maybe we should start thinking about it.

I’m making this presumption that you want to live vividly. Everyone knows that D. H. Lawrence said that the only aristocracy is that of consciousness. Rather than shlep through life on this Reagan diet eat vividly. Or what does William Buckley eat? I understand his wife is a famous hostess. William Buckley shows signs of eating far too many club sandwiches. Anyone who can eat a quarter of a club sandwich without expiring from torpor is beyond me. Buckley no doubt has a food perversion, a food that perhaps his wife doesn’t even know about. Something like Franco-American on toast or Kraft Instant Macaroni and Cheese. My daughter likes the latter and I’ve tasted it, and it’s proper for a fourteen-year-old girl. Maybe Buckley secretly cheats because most of his philosophical viewpoints are formed by his efforts to justify being rich. Who cares if he’s rich? If you want a philosophical justification of it you can’t pull this white Christian trip because you’ll never find a man in the history of mankind who was less impressed by the moola than Jesus. What is a diet of vividness but to live vividly, to see vividly, to write vividly, to make love vividly or as the French say it “to fricoter,” which is a new French hip term.

We start at base with garlic. Without garlic forget it. Garlic should be bought in odd numbers. You should get one pound, three pounds, five pounds, seven pounds of garlic. Roast these heads like they do at Mustard’s famous restaurant near Yountville, California. Use a little olive oil, fresh rosemary, thyme, beef stock. You cut the top off the garlic, a little flat spot on top so you can baste it. Eat several heads, as I have on numerous occasions. Just squish them out or go at them with an oyster fork. Drink a pint mug of Cabernet with this, anything less is cowardly and you won’t be vivid. Nowhere in the United States that I have traveled with my band, Vince Van No Go and His Poor but Proud Crowd, have I seen people that live more vividly than in Cajun country. Of course much is being made of this diet but essentially what you get in New York is a very watered-down variety except Texarkana and the great chef Abe de la Houssaye.

Down there they’re not afraid of your basic hot peppers. Go over to Nogales it’s the same thing. The best menudo in the country can be gotten across from the Historical Museum in Nogales. They serve these wild little chiles. There are wild Sonora chiles on the side, freshly chopped cilantro, and there are nice fatty morsels of calves’ feet in there with the tripe. It’s just splendid. Myself and the grizzly expert, Douglas Peacock, go there.

How to eat vividly? Of late I have been following this diet because I decided I don’t want to die. It’s called Eat to Win by Doctor Bob Haas. Of course the question is win what? Now I don’t recommend this as a vivid diet but the principles are correct—to reduce the amount of fat in your diet and simple carbs, and go for complex carbs and protein. Get the sludge out of your veins. I’ve been meaning to write Dr. Bob, who will be known henceforth as Bob, a comforting name. Bob being the most popular name in the United States, naturally there are some good Bobs and some bad Bobs but mostly indifferent Bobs, not to speak of the old-fashioned BeBob-a-re-Bob. I’ve been thinking of writing Bob about improving this diet because there are too many recipes in there that are torpid.

The best salt substitute, the only salt substitute that’s adequate, is plenty of hot peppers. My grizzly man sent me a care package from Arizona of about thirty different kinds of ground and whole chiles. Other than the fact that the place is hot and stupid, why doesn’t one live in Arizona where all these chiles are available? I don’t know, I just love “here” and it’s never occurred to me to move down there. My soul is drawn toward these Apaches and Hopis and Navajo. I watched the sacred Yaqui Deer Dance and had some snacks at this Yaqui Festival. Let me tell you these Indians aren’t afraid of a little hot pepper. They adore them, they hang wreaths, strings, and medallions of peppers all over their little adobe huts. I’ve made wild rabbit tacos with plenty of hot peppers. You could actually make a giant burrito with a whole squirrel but I don’t really care for squirrel. It reminds me of a really extravagantly premature baby.

Some of the key to this diet I might eventually publish along with a Frenchman and a Montana painter in a cookbook which is to be called Sporting Food. It’s the kind of food that Balzac would eat without getting pissed off. It’s not boring food. How am I going to stop such foods from killing me? Well I learned a secret in Brazil last winter and this secret had nothing to do with the extraordinarily cheap pharmaceuticals there. That threw me off my feet for a while, those softball-sized sacks did nobody any good. As it’s known locally, that kind of snort is known as “bone-be-gone.” If you want to turn your pecker cold as stone just keep it up, boys, keep it up. Down in Brazil I was at a churrascaria and their beef down there is grass fed so it’s not full of fat, like ours. You’d see vast tonnages of meat roasting on wood fires and they would hack you off what you want. They would wheel it around on carts that took several peasants to push. Along with these meats there were extraordinarily hot salsas. My favorite cut of meat was a little fatty. It was the hump of a zebu cattle, it’s about the texture of a brisket but much more delicious. There is a marvelous racial mix in Brazil. I’m thinking this diet of rice and beans and fruit and vegetables and fish might be what gives these women on the beach bottoms that were designed by their ineluctably superior diet. Go to Brazil, it’s quite inexpensive, skip any drugs because foreign jails are really dreary. And then there is the danger to any attractive male like myself. Go to Brazil, eat vividly. If you’re a girl you’ll be that thirteen-year-old staring up at that picture of James Dean or Monty Clift again, you’ll have hot and cold flashes, you’ll have gorgeous dreams, you’ll yearn again, you’ll yearn for life. Of course if you’re a boy in Brazil you’ll have a perpetual half-master, you’ll be semi-choked up all the time, you’ll regain your emotions.

I discovered that the Black Pope Tancred reconfirmed my feeling about the word seven. It’s the only number there is, it’s the magic number. To eat vividly I have a tendency to work in multiples of seven. If I’m stir-frying a little pork loin and fresh asparagus I have a tendency to put seven hot peppers and seven cloves of garlic in it. It just makes it a much more vivid little dish. Another vivid food that is much maligned in our country, but makes the most nutritionally sound meals, is black beans and rice (it’s a given you can eat a salad with it) or you can make pinto beans and rice. In Mexico the athletic kids are so much stronger than the junk food puffballs that we are breeding up here. Beans and rice are vivid food. You can tell when you go into Cuban bars in Florida or Mexican bars or by listening to my favorite current rock group Los Lobos. That is beans and rice music. That is incredible music of the streets.

Some of the more odious seem to prefer the English rock. Give me a break. When England lost India and her superior diet, she went downhill in a handbasket. You can eat well in London of course but it is generally where there is Italian food. I had a foreign visitor who started to get depressed at being in New York a week with the expense account bungfodder that we eat in Gotham, so I made him a simple dish of fresh pasta with a sauce made out of a cacciatore of rabbit and pheasant and sausage. His energy was immediately restored. The repellent fact of life to anyone who likes to cook is that the domestic duck is full of fat because it is raised on Long Island along with other banalities and absurdities. That duck is appropriate for East Hampton, South Hampton, Sag Harbor. Once you get interested in a vivid diet, I don’t mean these kind of yuppie nightmare foods, you get the farmer down the road and con him into raising you some Muscovy ducks if you don’t want to do it yourself. Muscovy duck is a very lean, gorgeous duck that I roast just short of twenty-five minutes at a super heat in my forced-air oven. They are delicious when their flesh is a deep pink. A superb duck. Buy Muscovy.

Many of you stickball queens would be a lot better off if you put aside this stickball and bought yourself a shotgun and went into the forest every fall and shot yourself some healthy, meaty fowl. Buy a fishing pole, even now as I am dictating this in my auto I am heading back to my hidden cabin in the forest in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and my car is loaded with fishing tackle. I even like the less desirable species pike; I like perch, Lake Superior whitefish, lake trout, the small pinkish ones. There is no industry within a hundred fifty miles of my cabin but there is some acid rain up here but of course Reagan refuses to do anything about it because he thinks of it as some kind of a Grecian Formula. Somebody told him acid rain keeps you from growing gray hair. When I started writing the Dead Food Scrolls I didn’t know where it would take me but I’m not able to eat meat as much as I used to. I like it but it makes me weird and vindictive for some reason. If you look deep into the eye of a rib eye steak you fully don’t realize it’s dead, but just leave it out in the sun for a hot afternoon. Then take a whiff.

Unfortunately some vivid food is sometimes expensive. Don’t waste your time on the mediocre French restaurants in New York. Another revelation just hit me with the force of a breeze: why is it that waitresses are more sexually vivid than actresses or models? Easy, they work with food.

Another good number is thirty-three. Make a low cal béchamel into which you add thirty-three cloves of poached and pureed garlic, make mashed potatoes, fresh not instant, Bob. Stir this garlic béchamel into the potatoes, take a little barnyard chicken and stuff it with these potatoes, massage the chicken with Clancy’s Fancy or your favorite hot pepper concoction and put it in a greased pan. I like to roast leeks, carrots, and little turnips with my chicken. I braise it on a rack, then you make a sauce with vastly reduced chicken stock to baste with. Roast it forty-nine minutes. You’ve got yourself a nice little breakfast or lunch. Dinner should be more ample. This will serve one mature adult or two semi-matured adults. Some of you may have noticed that my food columns have lightened up a bit—that’s because I don’t want to leave behind the legacy of gluttony. Now surely you have the good sense, as I only infrequently do, to eat rather lightly and naturally most of the time. I know it’s boring but we don’t have a choice. I missed the greatest party of the year where we roasted a pig and a half steer and some barons of beef, I missed it because I was in bed with a vastly red and inflated toe—gout had struck—I had earned that gout but I was ashamed of it and what’s more I couldn’t go to the party because I couldn’t walk. I tried to get there by taking a few Percodan but that didn’t touch this pain. The rule of thumb is “moderate to excess.” My favorite way of frying potatoes is in goose fat but let’s face it, you can’t do that all the time. At the dinner table my dad used to tell all us kids that all around the pig’s ass is pork. I’m still not sure what that meant but it owns a certain poignancy and urgency to me now.

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Let me tell you a little story, almost a Paul Harvey anecdote about how cooking saved seven lives, from when I first started touring with my band Vince Van No Go and His Poor but Proud Crowd. We started out the way every great band did. We played Tastee-Freeze openings, special used car sale days, commemorations at rural airports where they only have one airplane, 4-H club dances in Kansas; we had an elaborate camper and we were so broke that to keep these guys from snorting potato chips I started cooking for them along the road. Sometimes we’d stop to buy a pig or a lamb from a farmer. We’d stop by slaughterhouses. We’d take along a bushel of garlic and the only wine we could afford was Gallo. Those guys were a sorry bunch of tropical dropouts. I put them on this elaborate vitamin-mineral program and vivid food. They all had an average forty-to-fifty-pound weight gain and they all live very happily married and divorced today. They all regained their sexual vigor. They became husky, brawling lads. I don’t like to see them anymore because like all musicians on the skids their sole profession is to try and borrow money. They’d all be out there with Hendrix and Joplin if they hadn’t started Eat to Win.

I recognize of course that President Reagan should eat my menudo in order to regain the foreign affairs advantage. At the very least he could go back to his Musso & Frank’s Diet of 1948 where he wasn’t scared of a few harmless nitrates. Where he wasn’t afraid of some good solid corn fat in his beef, where the oysters were plentiful and garlic abounded. I’m waiting for the leader of a prominent country to have the guts to wear a necklace of garlic bulbs like Don Ho wears his flowery lei. That leader will show the potentiality of being the true king of the world. If you figure that you like all other human beings spend most of your time rehearsing your irritations then what a pleasure it is to spend a couple hours a day eating vivid foods. My next installment will deal with a critical problem, we’ll leap into a more interesting cosmos—that is the food of sexuality. The first chapter will be called The Oysters of the Gods. Where to find them and how to prepare them and their direct effect on the genitalia, male or female. This is not what they call sexist. Male and female alike need fundaments fine-tuned by good nutrition. Even while I dictate this to the daughter (a veggie) of a Jersey meat packer, I pour a tankard of Bardolino and tend the fresh rainbow trout grilling over a wood fire. The trout is stuffed with wild leeks, basted with vermouth and butter. Wild leeks provide the creatures of the forest, Mother Westwind’s children, with the spirit of garlic. As a grade school tyke I was sent home from school for eating wild leeks at recess and stinking up the classrooms.

Excerpted from A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand by Jim Harrison, published by Grove Press © 2017 by the James T. Harrison Trust. Originally from a letter to Mike Golden, which later appeared in Smoke Signals.