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The following review appeared 18 August 2010 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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In Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens Andrew Beahrs attempts to resurrect Twain's culinary standards of "Fresh. Local. [and] Lovingly prepared" (13). From the first page of the Introduction, Beahrs lets the reader know his basis for the book: Experiencing Twain's Feast. Beahrs also informs us that Twain was, to use our modern jargon, a "foodie." Twain's cuisine of preference was the culinary heritage of nineteenth century America. In A Tramp Abroad, after tiring of the poor food he tasted in Germany and Switzerland, Twain constructed the contents of a feast from his memories of childhood and from his American travels. He wrote that he would like to have this "modest, private affair, all to myself" upon his return to America (Chapter 49). Much of Twain's feast was unknown in nineteenth century Europe. Unfortunately, much of Twain's cuisine has now been lost in our own modernized America. According to Beahrs this loss is due, in part, to the destructiveness of a growing population, industrialization, environmental contamination, and the changing dietary preferences of our evolving popular culture. This book is Andrew Beahrs' personal journey to explore Mark Twain's culinary heritage and ultimate feast while pointing out the losses which Twain would mourn and the losses that we should mourn.
Each of the eight chapters follows a segment of Mark Twain's life that serves as a touchstone to explore the lost foods of America, including Twain's childhood in Missouri; his time as a riverboat pilot; his travels to Nevada, California, and Europe; and his family life with Livy and the literary culture in the East. Beahrs travels in Twain's path to Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, Hartford, and New Orleans. While in New Orleans, Beahrs collaborates with a local chef to reconstruct the menu of "sheep-head fish with mushrooms, shrimps, and oysters" (188) that Twain and Horace Bixby shared. Along with the retracing of Twain's steps, Beahrs also delves into the reasons for the shifting culinary trends. In San Francisco, he defines the oyster obsession that occupied Twain and then goes on to retrace the decline of the specific type of oysters prepared for Twain's feast and explains the shifts in sources and types reflecting modern oyster preparation and tastes.
Organizing his book around significant events of Mark Twain's life and literary career, Beahrs mentions young Sam's remembrances of the food on the Quarles farm. During the chapter covering Twain's recollections of the trout from Lake Tahoe (mentioned initially in Roughing It), Beahrs illuminates Twain's use of the memory of the "taste of such fresh fish when the boys hide out on Jackson's Island in Tom Sawyer: 'They fried the fish with the bacon and were astonished; for no fish had ever seemed so delicious before. They did not know that the quicker a fresh water fish is in the fire after he is caught the better he is'" (89).
Besides following Twain's footsteps to revisit significant events in his life, Beahrs also researches and reproduces the recipes and cooking methods by which Twain's feast would have been prepared. Mingled throughout each chapter are the excerpts from various culinary sources of nineteenth and early twentieth century America. For example, to prepare Twain's "prairie chickens stewed whole," Beahrs cites Mary Newton Foote Henderson's Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving, (1877); to prepare the classic "Hangtown fry" he cites Estelle Woods Wilcox's Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping (1877). Beahrs also found the origin of this extravagant breakfast and dined upon it in Placerville, California.
The predominant feature of this book, which would be of most interest to this forum and which interested me the most, is Beahrs' research and the connections he makes between Twain's writing and the food of his time. From the Introduction to his Afterword, Beahrs validates his sources as he travels the United States, reenacting and recreating Twain's culinary memories. He cites "chapter and verse" of Twain's meal preferences from Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, Life on the Mississippi, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to mention just a few. In the Acknowledgments, Notes, and Selected Bibliography, Beahrs supplies an extensive list of sources including Twain's writings, scholarly criticism, American historical references (both regional and national), and a myriad of culinary sources.
Beahrs also offers critical, although limited, insights into Mark Twain himself. This is especially true of the Whittier birthday celebration and the audience's and Twain's reaction to his miscalculated tale. Beahrs enumerates most of the details of the celebration, first providing a history of what would have been the gourmet cuisine for the literary elites and then recounting Twain's speech and the reactions to it (both his own and the public's). Prior to giving his speech, "Twain ate and drank for over three hours . . . in high Victorian style" (156). The meal began with "Oysters on shell," continued with "Terrapin Stewed, Maryland Style," and finished with "Charlotte Russe, Gelee' au Champaign . . . [and] Coffee" (157). However, as Beahrs recounts, Twain's "instincts failed him" because he "didn't know enough to give up and sit down" (158-159). Four months later, Twain writes William Dean Howells and explains that he wants to take his family to Europe "to retire from the public at present" (160).
Beahrs frequently shifts his focus away from Twain to look at the changes in the regional cuisines and the environmental, ecological, and social changes in America. With the title Twain's Feast I expected more Twain. Instead, Twain and his feast act more as a guidepost to the evolution of American cuisine and to the deterioration of our indigenous American ecological systems. For example, Beahrs laments the loss of the prairie hen in Illinois and much of that chapter details his participation in the attempts to preserve the grasslands that remain; at Lake Tahoe, Beahrs laments the loss of the indigenous trout--"Lahontan cutthroats" and the native American tribe's efforts to restock the lake with the species (98). Thus goes the majority of the book. Beahrs tells of Twain's preferences for the feast and then he meanders through a myriad of related topics: recipes from the nineteenth century, histories of environmental and ecological changes in the country, and his search to reproduce the dishes Twain mentions in his festive menu from A Tramp Abroad.
I'm a "foodie." I love to watch Top Chef and
Hell's Kitchen; I frequently DVR many of the shows on the Food Network,
and my current favorite movie is Julie and Julia. Additionally, my
library of recipe books takes up a good part of my kitchen counter space (with
Julia Child's books, of course, in the forefront). I'm also a "Twainiac."
I've read and re-read most of his novels and my home library comprises a large
number of references on Twain and Twain criticism. As a "foodie,"
I appreciate Andrew Beahrs's quest to reproduce Mark Twain's favorite foods.
I also closely identify with the components of American cuisine that Twain
and Beahrs enumerate. Because I am a native Missourian and grew up on some
of the same types of country cuisine, I nostalgically recall the tastes and
smells of the menu. I long for "bacon and greens, . . . sliced tomatoes
with sugar or vinegar, Apple dumplings, with real cream," plus most of
the items on his list. However, as a "Twainiac," I would have preferred
a more intricate integration of Mark Twain into the entirety of the book.