"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.
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In “Twain's Feast,” Beahrs traces the history of eight endangered regional foods on the menu, explaining where Twain was when he ate them and their significance in his life, and interviewing people who are working to bring them back.
“What I would hope people take away is an appreciation of the wealth of American food traditions,” says Beahrs, and also an understanding of how hard those are to maintain. “It's great to still have cranberries grown in southeastern Massachusetts. It's the first place they were ever cultivated. But that just doesn't keep happening on it own. People have to make a life there, and it's not easy to do.”
And some menu items that Twain took for granted have almost vanished. Take Item 68: “Prairie hens, from Illinois.” During Twain's tenure as a Mississippi riverboat pilot, there were 14 million of the birds scattered across the state. Today, 300 remain, thanks to the fragmentation of their native habitat. (Minnesota still has a stable population.) Illinois's birds are no longer for dinner.
Beahrs says that one of the most exciting parts of researching the book was meeting local conservationists and farmers who are trying to keep regional traditions alive. Take volunteer efforts to restore the oyster population in San Francisco Bay, as a way of cleaning the water and helping preserve other species such as salmon and Dungeness crab.
“We're not going to eat oysters from the Bay in our lifetimes – it's too polluted,” says Beahrs. “It's a way of caring for the land.”
“People have said, 'have you tried everything on the list?' ” says Beahrs, who will admit to once eating muskrat. “For me, I would try nearly anything, from an am-I-willing-to-eat-it perspective.” Where he draws the line is from an environmental standpoint: “I can't eat a diamondback terrapin.”
In a baffling culinary decision, Twain edited out “lobsters, broiled and deviled” from his final menu, but somehow both raccoon and possum made the final cut. As part of his research, Beahrs attended the Coon Supper in Gillet, Ark., an annual event since 1947 where 1,000 people line up for 600 pounds of raccoon. (Homemade pies, however, now have been banned as a food safety measure.)
“I found that inspiring in its own way – that the people in Gillet are so dedicated to preserving this tradition. … I love that they still identify with this meal every year,” says Beahrs. While he was at the event, which has attracted luminaries such as former President Clinton, he says farmers would talk about how their fathers would hunt their way home every day when they were working on the levees. Raccoon, back then, was a means of support.
As for the taste of raccoon itself, Beahrs says, “I'm not looking to buy it in my local supermarket.”
Beahrs paints Twain as a kind of proto-locavore. “I've heard the comment, 'Didn't everybody eat locally at the time?' Well, yes and no – food was being shipped on trains,” says Beahrs. “The best American food is fresh and comes from the place near where you're eating it. It's food that fits into the landscape.”
While many of the items on Twain's feast are no longer on America's dinner table, Beahrs says, they aren't yet extinct. However, that's not true of one item Twain reminisced about in his autobiography. “He writes about hunting pigeons on his uncle's farm, and how they would weigh down the branches.
That's passenger pigeons,” says Beahrs. “He cared about these things and thought back on them fondly. It should cause us to look at the things we have right now and how you can't take it for granted. There were billions of these things in North America – literally 5 billion. We should be looking at the fundamentals and how things have changed and how fast it happened.
“You're not going to be eating bluefin tuna in 10 years. It's just a question of are they completely gone, or did we collectively decide to stop a few years earlier?” Beahrs says. “Looking at his food helps pump a little blood into the term 'sustainable.' Things really do disappear – either from tables or permanently.”
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Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.