Want to Honor Jim Harrison? Make His Memorial Dinner
After he died, Harrison's friends, family, and fishing buddies gathered to send him off the only way they knew how—by having one gigantic meal
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In October 2016, six months after he passed away, 72 of Jim Harrison’s family members, oldest friends, publishers, editors, biographers, fellow writers, fishing and hunting guides, and several “Hollywood types,” as he might have called them, gathered at the Second Street Bistro in Livingston, Montana, to say goodbye to a man whose ravenous love of the earth was equaled only by his ability to articulate such affection in his books. It was late fall in Paradise Valley, during Jim’s cherished month in one of his talisman locations, the long-yellowed cottonwood leaves rattling above the Yellowstone, a river he fished religiously for nearly half a century.
I had met Jim a decade before, when he came to Missoula, where I live, to give a reading and afterward treated several young writers to a meal at a pricey establishment known for its generous portions of pork belly. Someone told Jim that I was a poet and fishing guide from Michigan. “Who the fuck isn’t,” Jim said. “Millions of people are. Where in Michigan?” East Lansing, I told him, where Jim had gone to college. “Where precisely,” he probed. I told him that I grew up on Gainsborough, “half a block from Harrison Road.” He spurted out some of his vodka. “Well, why didn’t you say so? Sit down. I’ll buy you a drink, son!”
Over the next several years, Jim would become a dear friend, angling partner, and shrewd mentor, often blessing my voicemail with declarations that he had “finished a poem today while forging the smithy of my soul. And you?” Everyone at the dinner had similar stories, and we shared them eight to a table, leaning over the candlelit, starched white tablecloths of the Second Street Bistro dining room, supremely focused on the just-served cassoulet—an eight-hour casserole chock-full of duck meat, pork sausage, and white beans, crowned with a crisp layer of duck fat. In trademark orange Crocs, khaki shorts, and shooting vest, Mario Batali stood up and raised a glass of Vacqueyras to chef Brian Menges, who toiled for months over this memorial meal for his favored patron and local hero. (See Menges’ recipes below.)
The cassoulet was the entrée to a five-course feast that had been steadily delivered to us over the preceding hour and a half: an incomparable duck pâté appetizer that we slathered onto baguette slices; grouper, snapper, and gulf shrimp served in a broth of tomatoes, fennel, saffron, and Pernod; then a salad of Belgium endive, Roquefort, apples, walnuts, and champagne vinegar—a high-end reconstitution of Waldorf salad, a Michigan potluck standard from Jim’s youth.
Multiply all that by 72 people, add ten cases of French wine, and someone gets a hefty check at the end of the night. Who? Tom McGuane, Russell Chatham, and Guy de la Valdene shrugged, waving off the question. Then came rumors of a coming dessert tray, rumbling from table to table. Jim’s 12-year-old grandson, Silas, whispered from his seat next to me, “I hear there’s seven kinds of cheesecake.” The lad was a prophet. Just then, pastry chef Amanda Haglund wheeled out a cart heaped with cakes and truffles, to be paired with coffee and Calvados. I could almost hear Jim’s nasalate goading: “Don’t be such a fascist—have some sweets.”
The dessert cleared, the house lights dimmed, and packs of American Spirit cigarettes appeared, along with glass ashtrays into which a Chatham sketch of Jim’s one-eyed face had been etched. Despite city ordinances, we lit up—a little mischief that Jim would have loved.
After the smoke, I stepped outside into the parking lot to give my Llewellin setter, Zeke, some water. I took a folded napkin from my pocket and proffered some leftover pâté to him as his tail wildly whacked the car’s front seat. I thought of how Jim’s dogs were always honored guests—“My zabuton doubles as a dog bed,” he once wrote—of how the voraciousness of the evening, like a setter on a scent, had carried me further than I expected to go.
Under a waning moon that hung over the Absarokas like a tack pinning up a note Jim had left us, Zeke and I made our way down Second Street, the mirthful din of the others eating cheesecake fading into the crisp night. The dog worked around the boles of a few old trees and peed on one he liked best, then dashed off toward the river rushing loudly in the distance, shirking, as it always does, any semblance of ending.
Jim Harrison Memorial Menu
“Curiously, in both writing and cooking you’re a dead duck if you don’t love the process. When you short circuit or jump-start the process in either, you end up with an imitation of your own or someone else’s best effects. You will get away with it a few times but the germs of shame will be there, and inevitably you will end up serving your guests or your reading public mere filigree, plywood gingerbread, M.F.A. musings, housebroken honeycomb, in short, the thief of fire as a college cheerleader.”
“Life is too short for me to approach a meal with the mincing steps of a Japanese prostitute. The craving is for the genuine, not the esoteric.”
The above two quotes are written on the walls of the bistro’s kitchen, and they have become a sort of a mantra for us. None of the dishes we cook are overly complicated in their presentation, and the recipes are just ingredients. There are thousands of pages and book upon book written about the cassoulet or bouillabaisse, both of which Jim loved and both of which we served at the dinner in his honor. Recipes for classics like that are subjective and more likely to cause an argument than consensus. It is the process of these recipes that are genuine, and I have always been all about the process. That love of the process was the connection that Jim and I shared at the bistro. —Brian Menges
Mediterranean Fish Stew
I have been cooking this dish since my first restaurant job back in the late 1980s. I don’t call it a bouillabaisse, to avoid arguments. It was a favorite of Jim’s. It starts with making a great fish stock, or fumet, which means trying to pull gelatin and protein out of halibut bones and infuse it in water. That’s long before the slow sweating of fennel or infusing San Marzano tomatoes with saffron and red chili flake. If you aren’t going to make the fish stock and use some kind of “fish base,” then it is not going to be genuine, which in turn brings us back to Jim’s quote on the wall of my kitchen.
The process for this dish is elaborate and would again bump up against the editor’s rather pesky word counts, so I’ll just say this: Buy any of Paula Wolfert’s many cookbooks about Mediterranean cooking, all of which Jim introduced to me. In fact, the best thing for anyone who wanted to try replicating these menu items would be to acquaint themselves with Paula and her approach to authenticity in the kitchen.
Salad of Belgium Endive, Granny Smith Apples, Roquefort, Walnut, and Chives in a Champagne Vinaigrette
One part endive, cut into matchsticks
One part Granny Smith apples, cut into matchsticks
1/2 part Roquefort
1/2 part toasted walnuts
1/2 part chives
Salt to taste—careful, the cheese is salty
One part champagne vinegar and two parts walnut oil
Dress the salad somewhat heavily and work the cheese with your fingers to break it down and make the dressing creamy.
I started three months ahead of time and butchered 80 Hutterite ducks, then packed 160 duck legs in an herbal salt to cure. The next day, I pulled them from the cure and simmered them in their own fat for 16 hours. Then we let them cool and packed them in their own fat to age and cure for 90 days. This was just one component of the cassoulet, which was only one course in the evening. In the cassoulet, there was also a homemade duck liver and cognac sausage (made from all the ducks I butchered), along with garlic and red wine sausage, not to mention the braised lamb, imported Tarbais beans, and house-cured pancetta. There is no way to talk about any of the specifics of how to make this stuff without exceeding the editor’s word count, but it is exactly these processes and steps that make it genuine. (If that sounds like too much, then order D’Artagnan’s cassoulet kit. These guys are the real deal and their products are sensational—but I wouldn’t have dreamed of using it for Jimmy’s memorial.)
Dessert was more straightforward, as we were just waiting to get to the Calvados and cigarettes. We also did four different macaroons and eight different truffles, both of which are liable to send us down the same rabbit hole of authenticity that we found ourselves in with cassoulet and bouillabaisse. The cheesecake is from my family and probably came off the back of a Philadelphia Cream Cheese box in the 1970s, but it’s also foolproof.
2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
8 ounces sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup graham crackers, ground
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 ounces melted butter
Cream the cheese and sugar, scraping the sides. Add eggs one at a time, then add the remaining ingredients. Bake in a bain-marie at 300 degrees Fahrenheit until set.
Illustration by Thoka Maer