dead guy’s company at the bar

Feels a little hokey to put it in such stark terms but one of the people who’s kept closest and most resonant company with me through the quarantine is the writer Jim Harrison’s food writing—which is a genre I never thought I’d read seriously, certainly not for leisure, imagining that any piece of prose to appear within the covers of a food magazine would entail lotsa floral banter about olfactory notes and bouquets and nuances of flavor—stuff that’s totally lost on me. I’ve got the flattest, most unreceptive palate, and my sense of smell only detects broad descriptive terms like you’d see in a picturebook: bitter, sweet, damp…

A few weeks ago, passing through my grocer’s, I bought a packet of dehydrated French’s pork gravy. The label noted that this gravy was award-winning. Since I have never won an award, who am I to question this gravy?

“Piggies Come to Market” from The Raw and the Cooked by Jim Harrison

            But Harrison’s food journalism reads like diary writing. He mentions food only sparingly (albeit with a flourish) and otherwise focuses on his romps through the woods and his vapid exhausting business deals in Los Angeles. What’s great about these essays is that no other consciousness ever enters the scene. It’s just Harrison. He doesn’t quote people, doesn’t do dialogue. Each article is maybe four pages and, on the rare occasion that they don’t land a joke or two, they’re funny, nonetheless, in the way that Harrison, like a favorite uncle, is so effortlessly in character, completely himself, riffing about his hangover, his lunches and giant snacks, his blind left eye, his bird dog, his foot that swells so bad with gout he can’t risk taking his boots off cuz he knows he’ll never get them both back on.

            Restaurant dining rooms are closed at the moment because Miami Dade County’s coronavirus numbers are outta control (about 1 in 3 people who get tested come out positive, according to CNN), so I’m not doing it at the moment, but I’ll confess that I was in the pretty irresponsible habit of going, almost every night, to Batch Gastropub on Brickell while the virus was still a rampant threat.

            The concession I made toward safety: I went there alone. Wore a mask to my “island” seat (a bar-like counter in the center of the restaurant) and I sat there facing nobody and I’d write an entry in my notebook, usually the first draft of a blog post, and then, after that first beer, I’d switch over to my Kindle and read three or four of Harrison’s food essays. And the reprieve that Harrison’s work gave me, the feeling of companionship on the “island”, is rooted in what I was mentioning up above about how there’s no other consciousness in these pieces. We don’t get a glimmer of anybody’s perspective except Harrison’s. The prose is lean and unpretentious.

Another reason for visiting Montana is that our two-year-old grandson lives there. Not yet able to stand on his own two feet, he lives with his parents, my eldest daughter and her husband. Despite my occasional visits he does not recognize me, which I find somehow comforting.

“The Last Best Place,” from The Raw and the Cooked by Jim Harrison

            If you look at some of these previous blog posts you’ll see me introduce people and then try to frame a certain situation from their perspective, try to make You, the reader, see them as a real and vivid person.

            Harrison doesn’t do that.

            He is the only person you’re sitting with, and he’s so thoroughly realized that it does genuinely feel (at least when I’ve already got a beer in me) like you’re sitting in somebody’s flesh-and-blood company.       

[O]n long road trips I have a weakness for biscuits with sausage gravy, a nutritional holocaust unless you’re bucking bales or hand-digging well pits. When I order this dish, covering it with a fine pinkish haze of Tobasco, I remind myself that the following day is a fresh start.

“Cooking Your Life” from The Raw and the Cooked by Jim Harrison

            I’ll go ahead and recommend his essays but I figure that, as with any distinct voice, it’ll warm to some and alienate others—and at this point, frankly, I think I would’ve been happy to sit down at the bar by myself and read essay by somebody with a very distinct writing voice that I don’t particularly like. Just some kinda persuasive substitute.

            Something that tastes real.

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