The Hungry Crowd: Mario Batali Interviews Jim Harrison
Writer Jim Harrison weighs in on critics, food bullies and the curse of the skinless, boneless chicken breast.
Photo © Kathryn Rathke
Jim, who is your favorite dining companion?
You are! You have humor and knowledge, but you aren’t stuffy or pretentious. In fact, that’s why I dislike food bullies.
What is a food bully?
They’re always pretentious about food. They are the kind who say, when you go into a restaurant,“Let me order for you.” And you say, “No. Get out of my face.” Or the type of person who whips out a little Robert Parker vintage chart to order the wine. They really hate that in France.
What’s the difference between a restaurant critic and a literary critic?
Well, actually, not much. I think the trouble with artists or chefs who whine about criticism is that if you love the good reviews, you have to at least read the bad ones.
Do reviews improve anything?
I think a couple of times in my career they’ve been helpful. But restaurant critics are a little more honest, because they review the food they ate. Sometimes literary critics review the book they wanted you to write, not the book you wrote, and that’s very irksome.
Do you have a restaurant pet peeve?
My biggest pet peeve is when you go to a fine restaurant and it’s like a mausoleum inside. Good food should be joyful. There should be laughter and chatter, not people sitting there like they’re in a funeral-parlor waiting room.
And whispering. Nothing worse than going to dinner and having to whisper. I remember being at a fancy restaurant where, when you ordered the chicken, the waiters brought over two slices of chicken breast. This one guest said, “I ordered the chicken,” and the waiter said, “That is the chicken, sir.” And he retorted, “Where the hell are the legs?”—loud enough for everyone to hear. I felt pretty good about that.
I went to one of Tom Colicchio’s restaurants, years ago, where they served a platter of a dozen chicken thighs with gravy, and I was so happy. Now you try to get a thigh in a restaurant—it’s a struggle.
Restaurants usually serve the thighs for the staff meal, Jim.
The big curse of America, to me, is skinless, boneless chicken breasts. They’re banal and relatively flavorless. The rest of the world’s trying to get some fat to eat, and we’re trying to ban it from our diet.
How do you find great meals when you’re on the road?
When you’re traveling, the whole struggle is to get something to eat that doesn’t semi-poison you. One of the funniest experiences I ever had was at a restaurant in Kansas. The special was fish—$3.95, you know? I said, “What kind of fish is that?” The waitress said,“It’s just fish-fish.” And I said, “Well, the ocean has many kinds of fish.” And she said, “This is Kansas.” This apparent food revolution, it hasn’t reached everywhere.
When you’re in the South, which do you prefer: the North Carolina vinegar sauce, the South Carolina mustard sauce or the Texas dry sauce?
I enjoy them all. Barbecue quarrels tend to remind me of chili quarrels. “You put beans in your chili? That’s illegal!”—stuff like that.
You’re an avid hunter. Do you eat a lot of game?
Quite a bit. I don’t hunt elk or deer anymore, but just the other day, my friend Danny Lahren dropped off a pile of elk, which I find especially toothsome. I make elk and venison meat loaf all the time. It’s like a real good pâté. I like game-bird pâtés. I’ve made them out of woodcock and grouse, with some veal and pork in there to bind it.
You can’t just buy game. You’ve got to hunt it, or you’ve got to know someone who went and hunted it. That’s one of the reasons why the flavor is so unique: You’re only going to taste it four or five times. When we cooked those Mearn’s quail together—that was one of the most unbelievable things I’ve ever tasted in my whole life.
They’re a great eating quail. I don’t like to shoot them particularly, because they remind me of kittens—but they are delicious.
What are your thoughts on antelope liver?
It’s the best there is. Some people think it’s as good as foie gras. But it has to be the liver from a female antelope. I’ve heard the males have too many purines, so the flavor isn’t as gentle. That’s true of venison meat, too: The doe always tastes better than the buck.
What’s the best bottle of wine you can remember drinking?
The best bottle of wine of my own I ever opened was a ’53 Romanée-Conti. That was exquisite. These days, I order a lot of the Domaine Tempier Bandol or inexpensive Brouilly. My wine drinking changed a bit when I stopped writing screenplays, because the wallet wasn’t full, and so I went to drinking a lot of Côtes du Rhônes. I don’t have a Burgundy income anymore.
But if you lived in France, you would. You’re a national hero in France! You’re right up there with Jerry Lewis, aren’t you?
That’s funny—I’ve never heard anyone in France mention the name Jerry Lewis. That’s sort of a myth. Maybe Mickey Rooney, but not Jerry Lewis.
You don’t spend much time in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula anymore. What do you miss the most about it?
I miss it terribly. It’s just a people-less wilderness. I would go on a walk every day in the morning to get ready to write, and I’d rarely see another human being. I would go months without seeing anyone. I’d be out there when all the chokecherries and sugar-plum trees bloom—you’d have a thousand acres of blossoms, and no people. It’s pretty wonderful.
And that helps writing?
Yeah, exactly—having nobody around. I put a sign up in my driveway—“Do not stop here unless you’ve called first”—but I didn’t have a phone.