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Twain's Feast

(article, Andrew Beahrs)

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h3. From the Introduction

I’ve always hated it when people say that America doesn’t have a real cuisine, as though fast food is the only thing we can truly call our own. Granted, the growing national trend towards fresh, high-quality, local food is greatly inspired by the incredible depth of French and Italian cookery. But food 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.

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h1. About the book and author

Andrew Beahrs has written two historical novels in addition to Twain's Feast, his first nonfiction book. Twain's Feast tells the story of Beahrs' journey around the modern U.S., looking for the wild, local, authentic foods Mark Twain reminisced about so lovingly in his fantasy American menu in A Tramp Abroad.

Reprinted with permission from Penguin (2010).

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As I looked deeper, returning to Twain’s other writings for more insight into his menu, I saw that when he 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 importantly, I realized, he thought of his own life. 

The foods of the feast were necessarily fresh, the menu filled with local, seasonal flavors. Asparagus, butter beans, sliced tomatoes — none could have been eaten very long after harvest, not at least without Twain judging them “insipid” or “decayed,” as he did European string beans and cherries. And in the 1840s America of Twain’s childhood, it would have been simply impossible to eat a fish like “sheep-head, from New Orleans” very far from the Gulf of Mexico. 

Such things were purely local; he’d later write that though many fine dishes could be had at Buckingham Palace, such dishes as pompano, crayfish, “shrimps of choice quality,” and “small soft-shell crabs of a most superior breed” could be had in “perfection only in New Orleans” — a testament both to the city’s legendary cooking and to its thriving lake, bayou, Gulf, and Mississippi River fisheries. 

His menu shouts of a joyous abundance. It testifies to a deep bond in Twain’s mind between eating and tasting and celebrating, an association that went back to childhood. Twain remembered to the end of his life the cheapness and plenty of many of the foods in Florida, Missouri, the tiny village where he’d been born: apples and peaches, sweet and Irish potatoes, corn and chickens and butter, coffee and sugar and whiskey. 

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“It makes me cry to think of them,” he wrote of the meals his Uncle John Quarles served at his farm not far outside of Florida, meals which included biscuits, corn on the ear, fried chicken, succotash, tomatoes, buttermilk, apple dumplings, and many more foods he’d later yearn for in Europe.

Of course, such good things demanded respectful attention. Twain took as firm a stand on questions of regional cookery as he did when he declared European-style butter a “sham” because it lacked salt, or when he moaned that to carve a chicken in the German fashion one must “use a club, and avoid the joints.” 

Concerning the meals on his uncle’s farm, he declared that “the way that the things were cooked was perhaps the main splendor — particularly a certain few of the dishes. For instance, the corn bread, the hot biscuits and wheat bread and the fried chicken. These things have never been properly cooked in the North — in fact, no one there is able to learn the art, so far as my experience goes. The North thinks it knows how to make corn bread but this is gross superstition.”

In journals, novels, and travelogues, Twain’s love for a dish was inseparable from his love of life. “Open air sleeping, open air exercise, bathing, and a large ingredient of hunger” make freshwater fish incomparably delicious, he declared in Tom Sawyer._ And he reflected after stage-coaching through the Sierras that “nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs . . . ham and eggs and scenery, a ‘downgrade,’ a flying coach, a fragrant pipe and a contented heart — these make happiness. It is what all the ages have struggled for.”

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h1.Featured recipes




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When I read his travelogues, it seemed that he never had a bad meal when happy, or a good one when miserable. Maybe he really didn’t; it was very much like him either to love a moment utterly, or to despise its every detail. 

So of course he loved foods recalled from great times in his own life. He’d passed through Saratoga, New York, only a few days after the invention of Saratoga potatoes, now better known as potato chips. Doubtless he’d eaten turtle soup during his brief stint as a printer’s assistant in Philadelphia. His menu included many of the foods from his uncle’s idyllic farm. 

On, and on, and on, so that when I returned to the menu I now saw a memoir, and a map. It was filled with memories, of all the things Sam Clemens had eaten in boyhood and during his wild travels from the New Orleans docks to the backstreets of San Francisco. No wonder that when Twain thought of food he thought of the best of America, an America imagined as generous, full-hearted, and young.


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