"Twain's Feast" author Andrew Beahrs talks about Mark Twain's dream dinner
"Twain's Feast" explores the 80 uniquely American menu items for which Mark Twain yearned while abroad.
In 1879, more than a year into the European tour that led to “A Tramp Abroad” and miserable from too much hotel cooking, a “cranky, ravenous, homesick” Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) sat down and wrote a menu of all the foods he longed for from home, which he said he wanted “served at a 'modest, private affair' all to himself, the moment he stepped off the steamer.”
Stretching pages, the final list was 80 items strong and covered everything from radishes, asparagus, and butter beans to raccoon to roast turkey and pumpkin pie. Potato chips (the newly invented “Saratoga potatoes”) made the list and so did “catsup.” Twain was incredibly specific in his longings: from “San Francisco mussels, steamed” to “Lake trout, from Tahoe” and “Canvas-back duck, from Baltimore.” Even iced water made the list – “not prepared in the ineffectual goblet, but in the sincere and capable refrigerator.”
Writer Andrew Beahrs has attempted to recreate Twain's menu in his new book, “Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens,” which combines Twain's life with the history of the foods the writer loved. (Twain, a quotable writer on any subject, cared passionately about food and could leave today's critics eating their napkins in despair.)
“A big part of the excitement for me was realizing that learning about his foods couldn't be limited to learning about recipes. You actually had to look at the places he went and the places the foods came from,” says Beahrs in a phone interview from his home in California. Take, for example, the Lake Tahoe trout, which would have to be caught and eaten right there. “Foods, which could only be eaten these places, helped him remember beloved times in his life. It became almost a memory exercise.”
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“I've always hated it when people say that America doesn't have a real cuisine, as though fast food were the only thing we can truly call our own. [F]ood is our most basic connection to the world, our fundamental means of sustaining ourselves on earth; it's always seemed intuitively wrong to me to say that America lacks rooted culinary traditions. Surely we have them, even if many have been buried beneath a sodden heap of McNuggets,” writes Beahrs. “I saw that when [Twain] thought of American food, he thought of anything but tired, clumsy, monotonous junk. Instead he thought of freshness and abundance. He thought of careful preparations. Most important, I realized, he thought of his own life.”