Jim Harrison’s Meatballs

July 20, 2021
A photograph of meatballs in tomato sauc
Photo by slgckgc / Flickr

Returning home to Manitoba, J. R. Patterson finds writer Jim Harrison’s meatballs are the comfort food he needs.

There’s nothing quite like diving into a good meal, unless it’s a good meal with company who know what you know. The home turf is always the best place to find people who know what you know, though returning home can be a disorienting experience. Writer Jim Harrison captures well the mood of returning home in his poem “Complaint,” which begins:

Song, I am unused to you—
when you come
your voice is behind trees
calling another by my name.

Our eyes and, as Harrison says here, even our ears can’t be trusted with landing back home. Only our taste buds never seem to falter. Comfort food isn’t just palliative; it’s a polestar. Just as Conrad strained to have us all see what he was writing, so Harrison wanted us all to taste.

Comfort food isn’t just palliative; it’s a polestar.

For Harrison, comfort food was spaghetti and meatballs, a meal that was “soul food, a balm, a food nostrum” that helped him “understand the often-questionable arc of my life.” Given that such arcs often lead us home in the first place, it follows that we seek out old meals like long-lost friends and gravestones of old pets.

I had been gone for months; had eaten poorly for most of them. There was work to be done at home, but eating too. I dreamed with a childhood gluttony of repasts past. When I finally arrived home after a long stint away, I pulled a copy of Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand from the shelf and, from it, began a batch of his meatballs.

“The dish,” he wrote, “deserves a roasted-tomato sauce made with fresh herbs,” something that “limits it to August in northern Michigan.” Not quite. His one-time cabin-in-the-woods, near Grand Marais in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, isn’t far, as the crow flies, from my home in Manitoba, where fresh herbs and tomatoes are plentiful. There, on the verdant edge of the Great Plains, I live not in the Michigan bush but on a beef farm, placed where shortgrass prairie meets tallgrass prairie on a dividing line that only a discerning eye can tell apart.

The Great Plains are often taken for a culinary backwater.

The Great Plains are often taken for a culinary backwater. No great ocean to pull from. No vineyards. No centuries-old cheeses. In short, no one heads to Montana or North Dakota, or Saskatchewan or Manitoba, in search of a gastronomic revival. Yet it is a part of the world—one of only a few such parts—that makes most cuisines possible. Its fertile soil is the foundry from which the basis of world cuisine is molded: tomatoes, corn, wheat, potatoes, oilseeds, and berry fruits.

When I am away from home, my cravings are for the choicest prairie grub: crosscut T-bone steak; tender, striated pork brisket; buttery perch from Lake Manitoba. That kind of dedication to the home-craving prevents me from choosing the beef elsewhere when given the option. I’m hard-pressed to admit to the superiority of other global beefs. Whatever claims Japan, Argentina, and Australia have made to that end, is the same as any farmer anywhere with a herd on a paddock of knee-high alfalfa. The best beef is your own; I’ve had the best, and can no longer reconcile with anything else.

Like any earthly garden, variety is paramount, and I was happy to see my father had set into the earth his customary tidy rows of beefsteak tomatoes, peaches-and-cream sweet corn, homesteader peas, sugar beets, and Yukon gold potatoes. These are likely found in most rural gardens, but that isn’t to say there’s a food homogeneity across the land. I recall an elderly German farmer with a corn phobia, the aftermath of having eaten too much of it as a child in hellish postwar Swabia. She had a green thumb, and her garden, though an arcadia of wildflowers, was devoid of those common green stalks.

A local anecdote (local to anywhere rural) has it that kids believe milk and eggs come from the store as opposed to a farm, or more directly, a milch cow and a chicken. I doubt such a gripe is true, based as it is on kids thinking about where their food comes from at all, which seems unlikely. Still, the idea is there: knowing too little about our food is to know too little about where we come from. It likely doesn’t help that so many on the Plains turn up their nose at ingredients given up gratis by the earth. Saskatoon berries, dandelion greens, chokecherries, and venison are contentious ingredients rather than universally beloved. Horseradish, once common enough to be considered a weed, was eradicated from the area forty years ago. Now everyone, no matter whether they know where milk comes from or not, needs to buy their horseradish sauce at the store.

Knowing too little about our food is to know too little about where we come from.

Harrison too was a writer focused on rural life, its products, and its producers. His 1976 novel Farmer was a commercial failure, but that says more about the world’s general concern with its food and where it comes from than the book itself. His stories are classic tales of the Midwest: boys and their fathers, families pitted against the elements, young men and women in spiritual reckoning with their futures against the backdrop of a pitiless landscape. These themes seem too parochial for a writer once described as the Mozart of the Prairie, but it was his deep pull on the depths of language and conversational grace notes that called for the comparison.

Harrison moved against the classical-era low-pressure system that brought a strong draught of European literary influence to the New World. “It is often said there that I am the most French of American writers,” Harrison said in an interview with the Parisian magazine L’Express. “Indeed, I first experienced success in France, which I am very proud of.” Certainly, he envied the country its culinary ways, though he once admitted France was a place for “destination eating,” its diet one eaten “purely for its own sake, an ideology of pleasure rather than function.” None of that stopped him from once famously chewing through a thirty-seven-course meal that cost as much as a new Volvo station wagon.

Not that his European successes turned him into an urban fusspot, nor did they engender him to write about more widely understood lifestyles. “My characters aren’t from the urban dream-coasts,” he told the Paris Review in 1986. “A man is not a foreman on a dam project because he wants to be macho. That’s his job, a job he’s evolved into.” About his own hobbies, he said, “How is it macho that I like to hunt and fish? I’ve been doing it since I was four.”

Harrison’s love of home, of the countryside, sings through his work. On my first night home, I could have gone for steak. I could have searched out lake perch. But I wanted to eat with people who knew what I knew: that the best food gives us the flavor of home. Harrison’s meatballs were just the comfort food I needed.

Harrison published his meatball recipe, first in the Canadian magazine Brick, and later in his collection The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand. The recipe calls for five garlic cloves, but I opted instead to use Harrison’s preferred number of thirty-three, a substitution for those, like Harrison, with a taste for more.

Gladstone, Manitoba

J. R. Patterson was born on a cattle and grain farm in rural Manitoba, Canada. He has worked as a farm laborer, factory worker, and writer. He has written for a variety of international publications, including National GeographicLiterary Review of Canada, and the LARB.