Rick Bass is starving.
It is in the pages of his new book, tucked-in between the sentences. The title, “The Traveling Feast: On the Road and At the Table with My Heroes,” might bring to mind a rollicking highway narrative overflowing with good times and great eating. It is that at times. But Bass sets us straight before we’ve even pulled out of the driveway with him. In his prologue, he talks at length about his divorce — one he did not want. He talks of how it stripped him of his hunger, “not just for art but for most everything,” and of his desire to find new footing with which to anchor his life and work.
It is with that famished heart then that Bass begins this lengthy project. He takes to the road to visit a number of the writers who have inspired him over decades, or writers he considers accomplished peers, and cook meals for them. His hope is that along the way he will find the inspiration for what’s next, much as these writers inspired him to pick up a pen of his own in the first place.
Bass is also joined by a mixed crew of younger writers, not just to help him with the cooking, but to also provide an opportunity for them to spend time in the luminous presence of the accomplished. It is a grand plan — but does it work?
The food writing certainly does, because I found myself often dragged into immediate hunger as Bass describes the meals he cooks. I may get run out of Montana for revealing this, but I’ve never eaten morel mushrooms. When Bass describes the meal he is cooking for the writer Barry Lopez and his family. This is the final course as he prepares it:
“Only the elk is left to cook … I heat the iron skillet and drop the backstrap into it, searing it in butter and oil. A popping mist arises, and in those splendid juices I sauté the rehydrated morels, plump little butter-sponges that they are.”
Elk juices? Butter-sponges?! Who doesn’t want to fork into that?
The meals, and the preparing of them, are merely the thread that binds the true thrust of “Feast” from chapter to chapter. The book is really about relationships.The relationships we have not just to our tribes, and to our heroes, but also — and especially — to ourselves.
How do we navigate a world where what seems most solid can melt away from under us? How do we keep going with enthusiasm? There isn’t a road map for this thing, growing old, dealing with change. Sometimes we need help and guidance. That is what mentors are for, and those are the people Rick Bass set out to learn from.
“Traveling Feast” is a road story, but the road isn’t just from table to table. It’s a story of reaching out, and a map for how to — if I might use a groan-worthy metaphor to keep to the road trip theme — ask for, and let, others give us a jump start when we need it.
My high regard for this book is certainly aided by Bass’s list of mentors. I enjoyed getting to spend time in the company of writers I deeply admire, through Bass’s essays. People like the late Peter Matthiessen, who passed away not long after Bass visited him. Or Barry Lopez, whose book “Of Wolves and Men” turned my world upside-down with its captivating mix of science, folklore, and adventure. Finally I would mention Terry Tempest Williams, a writer whose heart and kindness toward me the one time we met left a lasting impression.
How about Rick Bass as mentor? I confess to initially scratching my head over his idea of bringing young writers along with him; his taking on the role of “mentor” for them, as he describes in the prologue. Is that a bit arrogant? As our story unfolds, I decide it isn’t. Or if it is, who cares.
We need more mentors. We need more people, no matter what we do, to reach out to us along the way. Help is difficult to ask for. For some of us it borders on impossible. But the offer of it may be just the nudge we need to find our way, if we can muster the courage to accept it.
Reflecting on a whirlwind visit to the home of the painter — and occasional author — Russell Chatham, a man who has seen more than his share of dizzying highs and lows, Bass writes, “Few fires can burn as hot as Russell’s forever. I think it’s for this reason that I am so hungry for my aging mentors. I know how they did it when they were young. But how have they managed to keep burning later in life? I want to peer at them closely, to take in the center of the fuel they are feeding into that fire.”
At least for this book Rick Bass seems to have found it. Let’s hope it continues to burn hot for years to come.