When I met Jim Harrison in about 1998, Babbo had just opened. I had been a fan of his work and had read his books—almost everything at that point. At the time, The Road Home was just being finished. He came in when I wasn’t there—no one told me because no one really knew who he was—and he left a copy of The Road Home signed to me.
I called his agent, and I said, “What? What?! WHAT! Jim Harrison was in? WHAT?”
And he said, “Why? Have you heard of him?”
I said, “Have I heard of him?! I’ve followed him more than I would follow the Bible or Koran!”
And the guy said, “Well, maybe you guys should meet.”
So in about eight months time, Jim was back in New York and I hosted a dinner for him and about six people, probably 12 or 13 courses over many bottles of delicious Barolo. We became instant, fast and forever soulmates and friends.
I probably saw Jim two or three times a year. Often once was in New York and another was on the road, and another on the road. He and I enjoyed hunting birds. We have another friend named Guy de la Valdene who has a magnificent farm in northern Florida outside of Tallahassee that he cultivates for quail and duck. We would go down there and hunt. We’d also go to Montana, where Jim’s house is, and hunt in his backyard. A couple of times we went to North Dakota and hunted pheasant and Hungarian partridge because that was one of his passions.
He used to live about 10 miles from our house in northern Michigan, so I saw him a lot there, I guess about ’98. He and I were in the same county, Leelanau County, we would go over to his house for special meals. And then he moved the next year, which is a sad loss for northern Michigan. This was before I knew him well enough to call him over and just say, “Hey, let’s have dinner every night this week.”
There were the hunting trips, and then there were gourmet and gastronomic delights just about everywhere we went. We would do big dinners. When he was brought into the American Academy of Arts and Letters about 10 years ago, we did a big dinner at Del Posto. Tom McGuane, Guy de la Valdene, Richard Ford and a lot of writers. It was when smoking wasn’t allowed—the ban was just starting—but Jim insisted on smoking and hiding it behind the menu, and everyone was like “What the f-ck?! We can see you smoking!” And he said, “I’m not smoking.” And I’m like, “We can see you smoking, put that thing out!” It was fun.
In our group, there was always McGuane. And we always hung with a guy named Russell Chatham. He’s a painter who also writes odd books. Jimmy Buffett was a good friend of ours. There was a whole time in their lives when they were spending a huge amount of time in Key West, and they were obsessed with tarpon and permit fishing. Guy de la Valdene directed and produced a movie with a Jimmy Buffett soundtrack about all these crazy people and how they fish and how poetic it was in comparison to the profanity of commercial fishermen, who went out there and beat the sh-t out of the fish with clubs.
Food-wise, Jim liked things that weren’t so technical and tended to be more of the old school. He was a fan of not haute cuisine, not nouvelle cuisine—he liked the cuisine of the grandmothers.
Once, we went to a fancy restaurant. We sat down and it was quiet of course, and Jim says, “You know Mario, I think I’m more of a trattoria kind of guy,” because he loved my place, Lupa. He says this loud enough for everyone to hear. Every time they brought a course he kind of sniffed at it. Finally he ordered the chicken at maybe the third or the fourth course; they bring it out and it’s two slices of breast. Jim said, “Excuse me, I ordered the chicken.” And they said, “Yes, sir. This is the chicken.” And he said, “Well where the f-ck are the legs?”—really loud—“Why don’t you take this piece of chicken back to the chef and ask him to get me the f-cking legs because that’s what I want to eat.” Jim was as profane as could be, but his intentions were never to insult or hurt anybody. They were to be used as an underline or extenuation of the feelings he would have for something. And when he loved something, he would rub it weirdly against his body. Fascinating guy.
When we were at our house in Michigan one time, I imported at great expense a line-caught Pacific salmon and some dungeness crab. We ate the crab as an appetizer, and he enjoyed the salmon. But as we looked out over Lake Michigan he said, “You know, Mario, it’s kind of funny that you needed an airplane to bring us something that out here in the real waters where we’re living right now, we could have found something twice as delicious.” And that was just his general feeling. He loved everything that you could forage, everything that you could find locally, everything that you could fish, hunt, catch, trap. His biggest joy in travel wasn’t eating the luxury items, it was eating the peasant food and the local ingredients.
When we opened Babbo, it wasn’t revolutionary, but it was a tip of the hat to Jim in that we used all of what’s called the fifth quarter, which is the organ meats and odd pieces of every animal, because we celebrate it. In Italy and France and basically any real gastronomic culture, they eat the liver, they eat the kidneys, they eat the brains, they eat the snout, they eat the tail, they eat the intestines. Because an animal is a sacred thing, it was considered a luxury to be able to eat the tripe, it wasn’t a penalty. In America because we love steaks and pork chops, everything else is kind of like, “Well, we’ll suffer through it because we really want to get to the steaks and pork chops.” So Jim’s entire métier of work led up to what was the original opening menu at Babbo, where we had head cheese and beef cheeks and tripe and calf’s liver and lamb’s tongue. All the things we put on there were more or less a reference to Jim’s passion for real flavor, real technique and the ingredients of the cuisine that really brought us into modern cooking. His writings on food are so smart, so thoughtful, so visceral—so precisely what I’ve always loved myself.
The only thing that constantly surprised me was his massive ability to consume much more than almost anyone else. He was a man who would eat the whole cow—I mean the whole cow. It was fascinating to watch and a joy to participate in. The way he described each dish was unflagging, his enthusiasm never tired. He was constantly and always involved in it. He never lost the mojo.