Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens
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In the winter of 1879, Mark Twain paused during a tour of Europe to compose a fantasy menu of the American dishes he missed the most. He was desperately sick of European hotel cooking, and his menu, made up of some eighty regional specialties, was a true love letter to American food: Lake Trout, from Tahoe. Hot biscuits, Southern style. Canvasback-duck, from Baltimore. Black-bass, from the Mississippi.
When food writer Andrew Beahrs first read Twain's menu in the classic work A Tramp Abroad, he noticed the dishes were regional in the truest sense of the word-drawn fresh from grasslands, woods, and waters in a time before railroads had dissolved the culinary lines between Hannibal, Missouri, and San Francisco. These dishes were all local, all wild, and all, Beahrs feared, had been lost in the shift to industrialized food.
In Twain's Feast, Beahrs sets out to discover whether eight of these forgotten regional specialties can still be found on American tables, tracing Twain's footsteps as he goes. Twain's menu, it turns out, was also a memoir and a map. The dishes he yearned for were all connected to cherished moments in his life-from the New Orleans croakers he loved as a young man on the Mississippi to the maple syrup he savored in Connecticut, with his family, during his final, lonely years.
Tracking Twain's foods leads Beahrs from the dwindling prairie of rural Illinois to a six-hundred-pound coon supper in Arkansas to the biggest native oyster reef in San Francisco Bay. He finds pockets of the country where Twain's favorite foods still exist or where intrepid farmers, fishermen, and conservationists are trying to bring them back. In Twain's Feast, he reminds us what we've lost as these wild foods have disappeared from our tables, and what we stand to gain from their return.
Weaving together passages from Twain's famous works and Beahrs's own adventures, Twain's Feast takes us on a journey into America's past, to a time when foods taken fresh from grasslands, woods, and waters were at the heart of American cooking.
Spinner Publications, 1990), 14. 219 the Andean highlands Jonathan Roberts, The Origins of Fruits and Vegetables (New York: Universe Publishing, 2001), 187. 219 Sanding, whether done on Carolyn DeMoranville and Hilary Sandler, “Best Management Practices Guide: Sanding,” Cranberry Experiment Station Publication, 2000, www.umass.edu/cranberry/services/bmp/sanding.shtml. 219 carefully dug from wild bogs Paul Eck, The American Cranberry (New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1990),.
Twain’s life the simple phrase “trout dinner” was synonymous with simple enjoyment, with pleasure at once luxurious and comforting. Whether he was in Germany or stagecoaching across the Nevada flats, when Twain wrote something to the effect that “we had a trout supper,” you can be sure that whatever had happened before, he ended the day contented. But Twain didn’t include German trout on his menu, or trout from Missouri, or brook trout from back east, where mills and dams now dirtied the water.
It. . . . I know how a prize watermelon looks when it is sunning its fat rotundity among pumpkin vines and “simblins.” . . . I know the look of green apples and peaches and pears on the trees, and I know how entertaining they are when they are inside of a person. I know how ripe ones look when they are piled in pyramids under the trees, and how pretty they are and how vivid the colors. . . . I know the look of an apple that is roasting and sizzling on a hearth on a winter’s evening, and I know.
Didn’t know what the results of their labor would be, he was clearly disturbed. Wing dams guided the current; dikes constrained it; the shoreline was shaved of timber, loaded down with stone ballast and wooden pilings. “One who knows the Mississippi,” Twain said, “will promptly aver—not aloud, but to himself—that ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make.
Had soup first, of course, and then the beef or ducks, . . . and then we’d have wine with our cigars, and we’d have sherry, claret, and champagne, maybe . . . we’d always have crème de menthe and most always charlotte russe, too. Then we’d sometimes have Nesselrode pudding and very often ice cream for the most elegant dinners. No, never plain ordinary ice cream—we always had our ice cream put up in some wonderful shapes—like flowers or cherubs, little angels—all different kinds and different.