Nov 10, 2010
I was driving by a restaurant I'd been meaning to try (Julia's Bistro? Sheba? The Breakfast Club?) when a pothole jostled my car and brain. Houston is known for its potholes. Recovering from the jolt, I found myself thinking of a professor at the University of New Mexico who revealed to our philosophy class that Homo sapien can be translated several ways depending on how you interpret the root of the word sapien, the verb sapere. I'm not a Latin expert, but some light research since then has confirmed that Homo sapien not only means "wise man" or "thinking man" (or "wise woman"/"thinking woman"), but also "tasting man." The discussion in class that day mostly revolved around an understanding of "taste" to suggest a sort of refinement, that humans are an animal species with discerning sensibilities that lead us to producing things like music and art.
I thought the refinement translation was interesting, but what excited me more was synthesizing the more literal translation of sapien--to taste, as in putting food on your palate--with the thinking definition. This caused me to wonder what type of thinking the act of tasting engages us in, and whether literal consumption led to an altogether different kind of wisdom. This question is both lofty and absurd. But the fact that, as a species, we ritualize food, connecting it with every major and minor holiday, and, in cases like Thanksgiving, allowing it to become the cause for celebration itself, does tell us something important about how much of a role tasting things plays in our lives.
I've known writers who claimed not to have a personal or satisfying relationship with food ("I don't get food," a former professor claimed after reading a banquet scene in a workshop story. "You just eat it!") and I'll admit that sometimes eating feels like a chore not altogether different from refueling your car; but unless you swallowed a handful of flavorless nutrition capsules for dinner last night, you probably made a decision to eat something based on how you hoped it would taste, and in order to make this choice you had to access your own tastes, which sounds like thinking to me. In the sense that possessing self-knowledge can be considered a kind of wisdom ("Know thyself," Socrates advises), remembering what we do or do not like to taste is to remember how things taste for years after we've eaten them. While gourmet foods and cooking four-course meals may not be a concern in most of our day-to-days, food isn't something many people I know would say they could live without.
How we orient ourselves based on taste, and what this means for us as writers, is the focus of a collection essays by the poet and novelist Jim Harrison called The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand. In one of the essays, Harrison, a longtime sufferer of gout--an inflammatory arthritic condition triggered by heavy foods--eats a meal knowing the richness of it will invariably cause an attack. A few hours after eating Harrison limps home, his foot so swollen that his wife has to cut off his leather boot with a pair of scissors. Reading the essay, I wasn't sure what I was supposed to think of Harrison at first. His behavior sounded a lot like that of a drug addict, only instead of using drugs he ate food.
I spent the next few days thinking about what sort of thought process led Harrison to the decision he made. I'd like to think that his mind did some sort of advanced calculation, a food/pain algorithm, leading to the conclusion that gratifying himself was well worth the discomfort that would follow. I wondered whether Harrison's behavior was bold, stupid, or both. In another essay called "A Really Big Lunch" (originally published in The New Yorker), Harrison writes about a feast he attended in France a few years ago. Predicting that the meal cost as much as a new Volvo, Harrison guides us through the surreal 37-course lunch he and his friends enjoyed in a manor in Burgundy. To avoid inducing nausea I won't go into the delicacies Harrison sampled, but I'll say that one of the most interesting moments in the essay is when Harrison begins to doubt whether or not finishing the meal is such a good idea. The man has, after all, led a hard life of drinking, smoking, and eating in excess, all of which he discusses as taking a toll on his (largely theoretical) fitness. As a joke, Harrison considers faxing the lunch menu to his cardiologist, but he decides against it on account of the joke's insincerity. He knew from the moment he sat down at the table that his convictions wouldn't let him back down from cleaning his 37 plates.
But what does any of this mean for writers and writing? Is there anything to learn from Harrison's masochism and machismo, his tendency toward excess? I want to argue, with some admitted hesitance, that Harrison's position is an enlightened one. While it might be easy to write him off as a Falstaff-esque glutton, I think there's something deeper going on, something more, dare I say, revealing about the nature of thought and the nature of writers. It's clear to me that Harrison has a different relationship to pain and to his body than most of the other writers I read. In a non-imposing way, Harrison's body is always attended to in the narrative. He's physically present in his stories. While I'm not advocating that every writer put their body through the ringer or participate in self-destructive behavior, I admire Harrison's willingness to sacrifice comfort in service of unique and unforgettable experiences.
These experiences have made for some fascinating writing. But none of what I've talked about so far really made any sense to me until I started thinking about it in the context of passion. All of this has just been the prelude to saying that Harrison makes choices that seem strange to the average reader only because the average reader doesn't share Harrison's passion for food. As writers, I think one of our goals is to discover what it is that we feel so passionately about we'd be willing to sacrifice our own comfort in order to explore it. If we're not writing about the things we feel most passionately about, why should anyone care what we have to say?
One of the ways to reward an audience for their time is to share with them what the world would be like with a different set of priorities, concerns and obligations. Harrison shows us what the world is like for a man whose most important relationship is with food. This might seem odd--and it should--but the strangeness of this passion is precisely what makes his work really interesting. For Harrison, food and taste shape the way he thinks of and responds to the world much the same way history shaped William Faulkner's perspective and religion Flannery O'Connor's. While each of these writers may have had a troubled relationship with their pet projects (maybe they were pet peeves, too), it's clear to anyone who picks up their novels or stories that they were writing about these issues passionately.
The takeaway here is not that to write passionately you have to live dangerously or behave in a way that would shock your family doctor, though this method has worked for some. You don't have to put your life in danger, I don't think, at least not very often. Harrison has reminded me that as important as honing your craft is, as essential as it is to understand form, sentence, character, voice, rhyme, what have you, these are merely the tools of a technician, not a magician. Great writers, it seems, are a bit of both, using language and storytelling to confront the thing you feel you have to share with others because not only can you not stop thinking about it, but also it's just too big to keep to yourself. When we discover what our passions are, when we understand how these interests make the way we see the world different from the way anybody else sees it, that's something to be thankful for.