Jim Harrison's Art of Party Gossip
Sometimes little crumbs taste the best
I recently finished Dwight Garner’s fantastic collection of memories, The Upstairs Delicatessen, and it’s impressive to see how he can relate so many eating memories to various books he’s read. On one page he’s reminded of Norman Mailer’s steak recipe, Colson Whitehead on IPAs on another, Elaine Dundy, Jessica Mitford, Larry McMurtry, Elif Batuman, Toni Morrison, and basically….everybody shows up throughout it. A food memory brings up a literary connection or vice versa.
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After I finished Garner’s book, I started thinking about how often I also relate things I’ve read or watched to the experiences I’ve had eating. But one from The Upstairs Delicatessen stuck with me in particular, when Garner writes about oysters, about how he used to stop at Jimmy’s Corner for a martini, then walk over to Grand Central Oyster Bar for a glass of wine and a dozen of those delicious, slimy suckers. That combination got him thinking about gout, a condition he suffers from, and, as he points out, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, A.J. Liebling, Karl Marx, Ricard Burton, and my favorite John Updike character, Henry Bech, did as well.
He also mentions Jim Harrison, a quote from a 1991 Esquire article I’m rather fond of called “One Foot in the Grave.” Anybody with a copy of Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked on their shelf is probably familiar with it. It starts with Harrison in Chicago, at O’Hare. He wants a hot dog, but all of a sudden he finds himself in horrible pain. It was his third attack of gout in a decade.
“One Foot in the Grave” is about gout. Mostly. But it also contains some of my favorite journalism, the sort that I don’t see enough of anymore. It’s a personal essay with some good, harmless gossip laced in the middle. Whether that was his intention or not, I don’t know, but Harrison uses his experiences running around non-stop for a few days in L.A. to explain what brought on his latest attack. It starts with Harrison cooking “thickish porterhouses on the grill” in weather “three degrees above zero,” for his family before getting on a plane and heading out west the next day. He goes to a premiere for the movie Misery, which Harrison describes as being a film “centered on the life of a writer who gets the living shit beat out of him, over and over, by an adoring fan,” and that “piqued my rather nervous appetite.” He notices everybody at the afterparty is in the buffet line, so he heads to the beef carving station. He gets his fill, and later that night, he ends up getting a nightcap with a studio executive at Dan Tana’s when they notice Bruce Springsteen sitting nearby. The studio executive hardly pays attention to Harrison, and the writer felt “unsubstantial, so I ordered vongole, with double clams, to go with my drink, and two bottles of Barolo.”
That would be enough for me to love the essay and consider it a fun little slice of life through the eyes of one of the great outsider-insiders, but then the next paragraph finds Harrison at Jack Nicholson’s for dinner:
[H]is splendid cook, Paul, who is also a caterer, made a simple pasta with cream and an even pound of fresh caviar. For some reason my consciousness had refused to accept the known relationship between shellfish, fish eggs, and gout. Consequently, it was simple enough to devour a seventeen-course shellfish feast at Matsuhisa the next evening. While eating this incredibly presented fare, I quoted to the man sitting next to me, Mike Nichols, Richard Sandor’s notion that our lives are a series of automatisms interrupted by a subtle amnesia. I also advised him that the Ivy out in West Hollywood served first-rate crab cakes with a salad of Maui onions and fresh herbs. I had eaten them that day at lunch while escaping to Santa Monica to see the Big P (the Pacific Ocean), as it is known in the area.
In the next paragraph, he’s having dinner at Amy Irving’s house, and the one after that he watches “an escaped parrot poop on a designer limousine,” and then goes back to Dan Tana’s for cioppino. The next morning, at his hotel, he eats corned beef hash, and not long after that—surprise—the gout hits him.
Besides the gout and impressive amount of meat Harrison—who miraculously made it to 78 before passing in 2016—writes about, I love this essay because it’s got some very benign, boring gossip involving celebrities eating dinner. I almost have a hard time calling it gossip, but I don’t think he mentioned it to Mike Nichols or the studio executive whose name he mentions in the piece that they’d be ending up in his little story that was going in a magazine that lots of people read. So gossip is what I’ll call it, and it’s the sort of gossip I love.
A friend of mine recently told me they went to a dinner party hosted by a big celebrity. We started talking about the experience and I mentioned how something my friend said reminded me of Harrison talking to Mike Nichols at a dinner party hosted by Jack Nicholson. It was a benign little nothing and the things my friend saw and heard at the party wouldn’t even make it onto Page Six on a slow day. But the way my friend described everything was so interesting. This friend (who reads this, so I’m trying to be very careful to protect their wishes) doesn’t write all that often, but when they do, I’m always impressed at their eye for detail and how clean everything reads. I told them they should take the story they told me and turn it into an essay. They’ve been trying to write more but can’t get things moving. All it takes is a small pebble rolling down the hill, but sometimes that little rock can weigh far more than you think. I get it. But the dinner story they told me about and the whole experience after that they told me about sounded like something I’d love to read.
“Yeah,” my friend said. “Maybe. But I signed an NDA before going to the dinner party that I wouldn’t talk about it. So I probably won’t do that.”