“Nobody can tell you nothing,” my dad used to say to me. He was actually well educated but regularly used a remnant of rural bad grammar for emphasis. The off-the-wall arrogance that allowed me to become a novelist and poet didn’t pan out in the kitchen, and it has taken me nearly fifty years to become a consistently acceptable cook. There are obvious and somewhat comic limitations for the selftaught golfer, tennis player, or cook. With the last it’s not all in the recipe, but that’s a start. About forty years ago when my eldest daughter was ten and my wife was taking late-afternoon tennis lessons, my daughter said, “Dad, don’t you think we should follow the exact recipe, at least the first time out?” What a preposterous idea! Was my own daughter quelling my creativity? Of course. And of course she was right. I was blundering through one of Julia Child’s epically complicated seafood dishes while she was studying the recipe in careful detail. Here we were stuffing sole with crab when the mortgage payments of $99 a month on our little farm in northern Michigan were a struggle.
I still have grand lacunae: I have never successfully baked a loaf of bread or made a soufflé that rose higher than its liquid batter. I do well with fish, wild piglets, chicken, elk, venison, antelope, doves, grouse, woodcock, varieties of wild quail, and sharp-tailed grouse but not so well with Hungarian partridge in our present home in Montana. The key to any failures has always been arrogance and perhaps too much alcohol. Once while I was having an after-lunch drink with the famed chef André Soltner of Lutèce, he said that when he hired the young for his kitchen, within a day they wanted to create a salsa of their own devising. “As for myself I have invented nothing. I cook only French food,” he said. This seemed not quite true because in answer to my question he rattled off a half dozen possibilities for Muscovy duck, a large fowl and difficult to master. My problem here is an errant creativity that befits the page rather than the kitchen.
Poverty can hinder, but it can also help. In graduate school I was struck by Arnold Toynbee’s notion that great cuisines come from an economy of scarcity. By common consent we are dealing with the cuisines of the Chinese and the French, throwing in the Italians as third. By extension this is why it’s hard to get a good meal in Iowa or Kansas, where they have everything. In our own case it was a long period of near poverty averaging about twelve grand a year for fifteen years during my apprenticeship as a poet and novelist. We ate very well because my wife has always been a far better cook than I. My specialty was food shopping and studying recipe books. My wife had the specific advantage of not cooking with her ego. As a fisherman and hunter I was always good at “bringing home the bacon.” In the rural areas in which we lived wild game and fish were in plenitude, and since I learned how to hunt and fish early in life, wild food plus what we grew in our big garden was a large part of our eating. Luck plays a goodly part in hunting and fishing, assuming you’ve mastered the technique. I recall one cold spring evening coming home from nearby Lake Michigan with five lake trout that had a combined weight of sixty pounds, and one day during bird season my French friend Guy de la Valdène and I came home with nine grouse and seven woodcock. The next day he was startled when a local friend of mine stopped by and gave me an “extra” deer. A gift deer in France would be a very large gift indeed.
For the man who cooks perhaps twice a week the prime motive in cooking is to have something to eat worthy of your heart’s peculiar desires. In my own critical view 99.9 percent of restaurants in America are in themselves acts of humiliation for someone with exacting tastes. When you live rurally and remotely good restaurants are rare, and there were these long periods when if a good restaurant did exist in our area it was rarely visited because we couldn’t afford the tab. It was the same when I lived in New York City at nineteen and my weekly salary of $35 was split evenly among room rent, food, and beer, and the recreation other than chasing girls was to walk the streets reading restaurant menus pasted to doors or windows. The restaurants were so far out of the question that I felt no envy. One evening in the White Horse Tavern I won two bucks in an arm-wrestling contest and turned the money immediately into a large corned beef sandwich. There was a place near Times Square where you could get a big piece of herring and two slices of rye bread for fifteen cents. When you’re nineteen you’re propelled by the non-calorie fuel of hormones so much so that when I’d return home to Michigan, my father would regard my skinniness and say that I might eventually return home weighing nothing. At that age you’re always hungry but are too scattered to figure out how to address the problem.
Cooking is in the details and is not for those who think they must spend all of their time thinking large. This morning I burned my Jimmy Dean hot-pepper sausage patty because I was on the phone speaking with a friend about another friend’s cancer. Yesterday morning I ruined a quesadilla by adding too much salsa because I was busy revising a poem. How can I creatively and irrelevantly interfere with a proper quesadilla? It’s easier to screw up while cooking than driving, both of which suffer grossly from inattention.
You start with hunger and then listen to the chorus, small, of two daughters and a wife. If the weather is fair you look out the window at one of your several grills and smokers and then head for the freezer or grocer. When I was cooking solo at the remote cabin we used to own and sadly lost, everything depended on my captious moods, which in turn depended on how well the work went that day and the nature of the news from New York or Los Angeles. Your immediate survival can depend on the morale boost of a good dinner. I recalled a day when I got fired (for arrogance) yet again from Hollywood and the murk of the dismissal was easily leavened by grilling a baby lake trout, about a foot long, over an oak fire, basting it with dry vermouth, butter, and lemon. Minor disappointments over an inferior writing day could be allayed with a single chicken half basted with a private potion called “the sauce of lust and violence.” This recipe is hard to screw up, so you can easily consume a full bottle of Côtes du Rhône during preparation.
I’ve talked to a couple of prison wardens about how food is the central morale item for us caged mammals. At the cabin I’d even walk a couple of hours to ensure a sturdy enough appetite to enjoy a meal. I have regularly observed in both New York City and Paris that intensely effete cooking is designed for those without an actual appetite. You have to be a tad careful about your excesses because you can’t make a lasting philosophical system out of cooking, hunting, baseball, fishing, or even your sexuality. Life is brutal in its demand for adequate contents, but the very idea of leaving out cooking mystifies me. Life is so short, why would you not eat well or bring others to the pleasure of your table?
Men learning to cook often start with the BBQ grill, perhaps because they have been roasting meat over fire for a couple of hundred thousand years. Of course women do it equally well, but then they must think, Let the dickhead go at it; I’m tired of doing all of the cooking. There is no better insurance for a long-lasting marriage than couples who cook together or a man who engineers the meals a few times a week to release his beloved from the monotony.
It is quite impossible for a man to do anything without a touch of strutting vanity, and as the years pass a man will trip over his smugness in the kitchen or at the grill. A friend who is normally a grill expert got drunk and literally incinerated (in a towering flame) a ten-pound prime rib in front of another friend, who had laid out the two hundred bucks for the meat, which ultimately tasted like a burned-out house smells. And there must be hundreds of thousands of instances of the one dish a neophyte can cook. You hear “Wait until you try Bob’s chili” or “You won’t believe Marvin’s spaghetti sauce!” as if there were only one. Bob’s chili had a large amount of celery in it, which exceeds in heresy the idea that God is dead, while Marvin’s pasta sauce had more oregano in it than a pizzeria would use in a week.
Currently the overuse of rosemary among bad cooks in America must be viewed as a capital crime. The abuse of spices and herbs is a hallmark of neophyte cooking and enjoyed only by those with brutish palates. I admit my guilt early on in this matter, recalling the upturned faces of my daughters and their glances: “What in God’s name did you put in here, Dad?”
I admit to obsessions that by definition can’t be defined, as it were. Once on my way north to the cabin I stopped in an Italian market in Traverse City, Folgarelli’s, which helped shape and enlighten the eating habits of the area, and told the proprietor, Fox, that I needed seven pounds of garlic. Fox was curious about which restaurant I owned, and I said it was just me at my cabin, where the nearest good garlic was a 120-mile drive. To start the season in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where many years there still was remnant snow on the ground in May, I needed to make a rigatoni with thirty-three cloves of garlic in honor of the number of years Christ lived. Fox Folgarelli seemed sympathetic to my neurosis as he built my sandwich out of mortadella, imported provolone, salami, and a splash of Italian dressing. Food lovers are not judgmental of one another’s obsessions. Many years later when I sat down in France with eleven others to a thirty-seven-course lunch (only nineteen wines) that took thirteen hours, no one questioned our good sense. Nearly all the dishes were drawn from the eighteenth century, so there was an obvious connection to the history of gastronomy, though in itself that wouldn’t be enough to get me on a plane to Burgundy.
The biggest corrective in my cooking was to become friends and acquaintances with a number of fine chefs. Early on it was Alice Waters and Mario Batali. My friendship with Mario led me to Tony Bourdain. When my seventieth birthday came up, Mario, April Bloomfield from The Spotted Pig, and Adam Perry Lang came out from New York City and Chris Bianco from Phoenix. We had a dozen lovely courses, ending with 1937 Château d’Yquem, 1937 Madeira, and 1938 Armagnac to get close to my birth year. On another trip Mario brought Loretta Keller from San Francisco and Michael Schlow from Boston, the fastest knife I’ve ever seen.
The immediate lesson of being in the kitchen with a fine or great chef is humility. You properly want to go hide behind the woodpile until the dinner bell. You are a minor tennis club player from South Dakota in the presence of Roger Federer. What astounds you other than the product is the speed and dexterity with which they work. You feel like a sluggard because you are a sluggard. I can truthfully say that I wrote my novella Legends of the Fall in nine days, but by then I had twenty-plus years of practice. The same with chefs. There are no accidents or miracles, there is just hard work accompanied by taste.
It is a somber situation with the best home or amateur chefs. When I watch my elder daughter, Jamie, forty years after our first forays into French cooking, I am aware that I have fallen behind her until I’m around the corner out of sight, but then after university she worked in New York for Dean & DeLuca catering. When I cook and learn from my friend Peter Lewis from Seattle I remind myself that he owned the restaurant Campagne for about fifteen years. In France my friend the writer and book dealer Gérard Oberlé, who hosted the thirty-seven-course lunch, can bone a lamb shoulder in minutes, while I take a half hour. And who else makes a lovely sixteenth-century stew out of fifty baby pigs’ noses? The owner of the vineyard Domaine Tempier, Lulu Peyraud, now in her nineties, has cooked me a dozen meals, and a few courses of each have caused goose bumps. You watch closely and hopefully manage the humility of the student again.
Cooking becomes an inextricable part of life and the morale it takes to thrive in our sodden times. A good start, and I have given away dozens of copies, is Bob Sloan’s Dad’s Own Cookbook. There is no condescension in the primer. Glue yourself to any fine cooks you meet. They’ll generally put up with you if you bring good wine. Don’t be a tightwad. Owning an expensive car or home and buying cheap groceries and wine is utterly stupid. As a matter of simple fact you can live indefinitely on peanut butter and jelly or fruit, nuts, and yogurt, but then food is one of our few primary aesthetic expenses, and what you choose to eat directly reflects the quality of your days. Your meals in life are numbered and the number is diminishing. Get at it.
Originally published in Playboy. Excerpt courtesy of Grove Press from “A Really Big Lunch: Meditations on Food and Life from the Roving Gourmand,” by Jim Harrison.