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.”
“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.”
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.”
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.