REVIEW by Cynthia D. Bertelsen
Twain's Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens
by Andrew Beahrs
Penguin Press HC, June 2010
Hardcover 336 pp., ISBN: 978-1594202599
For a book to be more than merely good, it needs a compelling character, one that strides onto the page and holds the reader in a gripping half nelson. A great book inspires the reader to find out more after “The End.” Andrew Beahrs, in Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens, certainly found his character—larger-than-life nineteenth-century writer and humorist Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens).
You may recall reading Adventures of Huck Finn or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but who knew Mark Twain was a foodie? “If I have a talent,” said Twain, “it is for contributing valuable matter to works upon cookery.” And for anyone who’s traveled in Europe seeking the glorious cuisine grand-mere of France or the true cucina di povera of Italy, Twain’s comments about European cuisine can sound distressingly familiar, even after 130 years: “If one could always [eat] with private families, Europe would have a charm which it now lacks. As it is, one must live in the hotels, of course, and that is a sorrowful business.”
Homesick in 1879 in Venice for something to “hit the hungry place,” Twain sat alone in a hotel room and litanized eighty foods that essentially defined the cuisine of America of his time, from radishes to biscuits and pumpkin pie. Published a year later in his account of his European travels, A Tramp Abroad, Twain’s litany lit a fire under Andrew Beahrs 130 years later, inspiring his pilgrimage. In eight well-researched chapters, one covering mostly raccoon and its noisome fat, Beahrs uses Twain’s menu of Americana as an itinerary. Each chapter of Twain’s Feast serves up a specific, vanished food: prairie hens from Illinois, Arkansas possums and raccoons, plump Lake Tahoe trout, oysters and mussels in San Francisco, Philadelphia terrapin, sheeps-head and croakers from New Orleans, Massachusetts cranberries, and Vermont maple syrup.
Influenced in part by the local foods movement and its guru Michael Pollan, Bearhrs’s mantra became “I wanted to know what we still have. I wanted to know what we were losing, and what we might be getting back. I wanted to know what was gone.” In other words, Beahrs—who earned a master’s in anthropology/archeology at the University of Virginia—set out not only to find Twain’s foods, but something far grander. Like Anne Vileisis in her Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get it Back (2010), Beahrs sought, and found, the history of American food and agriculture, now seeping away in eroding shorelines and shrinking wetlands and plowed-up prairie.
Larding his book with Twain quotes and anecdotes, Beahrs digresses here and there at times into Jeopardy-rich trivia. He describes in detail the efforts of twenty-first century people harvesting oysters and cranberries or producing maple syrup. He plucks numerous recipes from period cook books, illustrating how people in Twain’s time cooked the foods Twain swooned over, like Juliet Corson’s Terrapin (turtle) Clear Soup or Fried Trout (Practical American Cookery and Household Management, 1886). He delves into the culinary mysteries of New Orleans and expounds on Thanksgiving.
One tantalizing comment that Beahrs drops into this complex, roiling, yummy stew of a book invites more attention. He says, “Twain’s menu is full of dishes with African roots.” Beahrs’s great book, like Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself,” sings an ode to America and its food, to the people who grow it, to the people who cook it, and to the people who love it. Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens ought to inspire readers everywhere to read more Twain and to seek the foods he loved, too.
November 7, 2010