BY Julia Langbein in Books , Opinion | 18 AUG 19
Featured in
Issue 205

What the Writing of Food Critic Jim Harrison Tells Us About #MeToo

Reckoning with the legacy of Jim Harrison, whose writing portrayed women like meals – meant to give pleasure and comfort, without having any hunger themselves

BY Julia Langbein in Books , Opinion | 18 AUG 19

For a period of time between the publication of The Raw and the Cooked in 2001 and A Really Big Lunch in 2017, I thought there were few reading pleasures as reliable as diving into a meal with the American writer Jim Harrison. And Harrison, who died in 2016 at the age of 78 – having written nearly three dozen works of fiction, poetry and essays – dived into a lot of meals.

In ‘Paris Rebellion’ (2003), Harrison lands in the French capital for a publicity tour. (His fiction is huge in France.) Barely having touched ground, Harrison rushes to the Bon Marché department store’s exquisite food hall for a ‘smallish picnic’ of ‘several cheeses, a slab of foie gras, bread and a couple bottles of Gigondas, nothing fancy’, although he has to dart out of the checkout line to add an array of herring, ‘to be safe’. After his picnic, to ‘work up an appetite’, Harrison roams the sidewalks ‘relentlessly, picking out a pert bottom to follow’ and, from bottoms, his thoughts ‘naturally’ turn back to French charcuterie and jambon persillé. I used to see this kind of thing as a sign of his honesty: his appetites, sexual and gastronomic, swirling around inside him for everyone to see, like laundry suds through the glass door of a washing machine.

Jim Harrison, Montana, 2004. Courtesy: © Alec Soth/Magnum Photos

Far from hedonism or show-off piggery, Harrison’s magic trick was to make eating meat, slamming magnums, smoking cigarettes and lusting after women seem essential to a genuine life, a vivid life (his key word), one lived ‘on the physical plane’, in an evanescing world.

Harrison’s topics were both bigger and smaller than any trend: death, and also, what’s for dinner. Meals, so simply described, mattered – and thus food writing, which was also exploding as a genre, might matter – because his scorn for the cultural vacuity of American eating was part of the ‘bitterest’ struggle ‘against business, industry and government, which are using the environment, as always, as a cheap toilet’.

But something has happened since Harrison’s death. The sea change in collective awareness of sexual politics, particularly in Harrison’s twin pastures of Hollywood and fine dining, has put his conflation of sexual and gastronomic appetites in a new, stark and troubling light. Specifically, the way his desire for food and sex together puts women on a level with, say, ham in aspic – a conflation Harrison describes as so natural to him that it occurred already in his infancy. He begins The Raw and the Cooked with an origin story (‘The Man Who Ate Books’) about himself as a six-month-old baby who sat on the floor chewing the leather-bound cover of the family Bible while peeping up his auntie’s skirt.

He wants to tell us that he had a preternatural understanding of the connection between reading, eating and sex. But they’re not connected by much other than the fact that Harrison likes them all, and their pleasures aren’t universally available. For example, reading, like eating, seems to be a man’s game. He had an early affair with a redhead he saw reading a book because ‘not many girls read books, so you had to make do’. In a brave essay about depression, Harrison describes the relief of meeting ‘a pretty girl who claimed to have read an entire book’.

A convincing notion of sex or sexual pleasure isn’t really at play in Harrison’s language; a narrower cultural practice of skirt-chasing is. Harrison tries to peek between ladies’ legs at cafés and restaurants; he tracks their butts like game. I think it’s meant to be comic, when, for example, seeing a ‘mature’ woman in tennis whites at a gourmet shop, his ‘body became spasmodic with an involuntary humping motion’. Please Lord may this be literary licence and tell me Harrison didn’t actually air-hump someone’s mother in a deli.

These are anything but isolated moments of Falstaffian lust. A glowing 2017 review by David Masciotra of The Raw and the Cooked for Salon raved that: ‘By doing his best to bridge the distance between thoughts of pleasure and feelings of pleasure, he almost creates a new value system in the readers who take him seriously.’ Yes, and that’s a problem: there’s an ethics to Harrison, principles for living. Unlike his fiction, which has been criticized for machismo (Rebecca Solnit put Harrison on her 2015 list of ‘80 Books No Woman Should Read’), his non-fiction has a value system in which the objectification of women is foundational. He describes a pyramid, whereby the satisfaction of sexual and gastronomic impulses are the base, supporting the capstone of art. Women are, like food, there to give pleasure and comfort, but they rarely have any appetite themselves. In a 1992 essay for Esquire (‘Unmentionable Cuisine’), a group of landlocked men enjoy ‘massive, prime, well-aged T-bone’, while the one wife present idiotically orders shrimp, which looks like ‘albino tomato worms’. Women don’t share in the pleasures of literature, sex or gastronomy; they’re passive, unaware of the marrow they’re not sucking but full of savoury promise to their predators: ‘I wanted wine and […] fine food with the intensity that a man marooned on a glacier for four months might desire a Big Ten cheerleader.’

Jim Harrison, The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand, 2001. Courtesy: Grove Atlantic

It would be one thing if Harrison conjured his appetites to grapple with them or to face them down earnestly. (Anthony Bourdain, for example, scrutinized toxic masculinity in the kitchen.) But he joked that the ‘over­examined life’ wasn’t worth living – ‘body pleasures’ were there to ‘dispel darkness’, to comfort and ground a man, not to be analyzed or fought. Harrison’s most famous essay, ‘A Really Big Lunch’ (2004) – a description of a 37-course meal whose host once prepared Harrison a torte of 50 pigs’ noses – opens with the question: ‘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?’ I want to ask: but have you tried to resist it, or to sort the mess? Harrison ploughs on with the feast, and its 19 wines, in the comfort of a fraternity confident it knows how to live.

His final collection of essays was prefaced by his good friend, Mario Batali, who called Harrison ‘my hero’. Batali’s own sexual misdeeds were a widely known secret in the food world precisely in the years of Harrison’s ascendance. It is chilling how Batali’s patterns of sexual harassment were excused until the 2017 #MeToo reckoning because they were framed as a corollary of his excessive gastronomic appetites. As Helen Rosner pointed out in a 2017 New Yorker article (‘Mario Batali and the Appetites of Men’), Batali’s very excessiveness, his ‘disregard for boundaries’, was a ‘foundation of his mythology’, a self-branding on the model of Harrison. Of course, Harrison has no known history of harassment, and Batali is solely responsible for his own behaviour. But it’s not hard to see Batali as a spiritual acolyte that took the scripture too literally. Harrison once asked: ‘Why is it that waitresses are more sexually vivid than actresses or models? Easy, they work with food.’ Batali targeted waitresses, treating them like restorative ‘body pleasures’ to be enjoyed. (‘He tried to touch my breasts; he told me they were beautiful,’ reported an employee of the Spotted Pig, where Batali was part-owner.) Harrison fled from the venality of politics to the easy pleasures of the body without acknowledging that sex and bodies, how they’re wanted and who they satisfy, are a matter of politics, particularly for women.

Main image: Jim Harrison, c.1979–88. Courtesy: Grand Valley State University Special Collections; photograph: © Bob Wargo

This article first appeared in frieze issue 205 with the title ‘The Unexamined Appetite’

Julia Langbein is an art historian and writer based in Ireland. Her book Laugh Lines: Caricature and Painting in Nineteenth-Century France is forthcoming from Bloomsbury.