I have been reading the wonderfully funny and insightful The Raw and the Cooked, a buffet of food articles by the late Jim Harrison. I first encountered this fine gentleman on Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” where he was a cigarette tugging tour guide to the culinary marvels of Montana. The relationship between death and food is a constaint refrain in his writing, and shortly after that episode was filmed Harrison did indeed pass away.
So, I certainly recommend you buy the book or get it out of your library. But I hope you will not be distracted as I am by the unsettling photograph on the cover. Where was it taken? Googling the photographer, Maude Schuyler Clay, turns up that she is a Mississippian and indeed this looks like classic Southern cooking in the photo. Harrison is in some kind of casual dining establishment* (the tablecloth is a faux cowhide), eating what looks to be fried fish served with turnip greens, blackeye peas and a hush puppy. A square of cornbread and bottles of Louisiana Hot Sauce and pepper sauce complete the setup.
But look closer and it becomes a case of “find the six things wrong in this picture”. What is Harrison doing drinking a glass of red wine with his fish? (For that matter, white wine would equally out of place. This is Southern food! It demands ice tea, water or a beer, depending on the local temperance laws.) And what is going on with the table setting next to his? His dining companion appears to have ordered a couple of pork chops with fried okra and butter beans plus a side of squash casserole, all good. But why is that plate so close to Harrison’s arm he would knock it off the table if he lifted his wine glass? And why is that diner’s place set with a knife but no fork, spoon or napkin, or chair for that matter? And whose ice tea is that way off in the corner? Add to that the fact the wainscot rail behind him is photographed at a nausea-inducing angle when it could just as easily have been on the level, and you have to feel that Schuyer, and the “cover designer” Gretchen Mergenthaler, are messing with us.
Apologies for my own off-kilter photo of the book from my library; the copy I bought was the Kindle version. I think Harrison’s writing just the thing to quaff in small dollops while sitting on a plane, much as he himself would have done with some of his bespoke libations. And I don’t have to look at the photo to keep reading.
*The only mention of Mississippi in the book is a passing reference to the Ajax Cafe in Oxford. I looked at photos online and there is no evidence the cover photo was shot there. Tablecloths are gingham, and there are no wainscoted walls that would lend themselves to this setup.