Monday, January 31, 2011

Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens by Andrew Beahrs

Mark Twain and his family took an extended tour of Europe in 1879, lodging at hotels across the continent. To his chagrin, he found most of the food edible but without much flavor. As the months went by, he began to yearn for prairie hens from Illinois, oysters from San Francisco, Philadelphia terrapin, lake trout from Tahoe, and more. These were foods that he had eaten as a young man piloting a riverboat on the Mississippi, trying to make his fortune in California, or touring the East Coast as a new author. Being a man of many words, he wrote a list with eighty items, which he published in his travel memoir A Tramp Abroad. Coming across this list, anthropologist and novelist Andrew Beahrs had this idea: take Twain's list on the road across America and see if he could find dishes in their original regional recipes. The result is his book Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens.

Not all of the foods that Twain longed for really merited Beahrs attention, so he skipped over radishes, mashed potatoes, catsup, and some other fairly common foods and instead concentrated on regional specialities, including those I mention in the first paragraph. To the amusement of his wife, he made few dishes at home, but then hit the road. Each chapter features a trip. For example, to eat possum and raccoon, he went to the annual Coon Supper in Gillett, Arkansas (and his wife most pointedly stayed home). Being an anthropologist, he discusses not only Twain's memories of hunting and the current Arkansas feast, which draws hundreds of people including politicians, but also the history of African slaves brought to America who ate raccoon as a supplement to their meager meat allowance. The chapter has recipes and he assures us that raccoon does not taste like chicken.

My favorite chapter may have been the one on maple syrup. At the time Twain was writing, the manufacturers of maple sugar were trying to compete with beet and cane sugar producers for a share of the all purpose sugar market. The ideal maple syrup was thought to be a clear and tasteless liquid - a product that when reduced to sugar would not interfere with the taste of the food being sweetened. Beahrs visited maple syrup farmers in Connecticut who showed him the old and new ways to harvest and manufacture the sap.

Readers wanting to focus on Twain will be a little disappointed in Twain's Feast. Twain's love of food is really just the inspiration for the book. Most of the book could be called either a travel memoir or a work of natural history. Beahrs handles these subjects with skill and a bit of humor. I enjoyed it.

Beahrs, Andrew. Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens. Penguin Press, 2010. ISBN 9781594202599.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Intriguing. Guess I'll start looking for this one.