In 1879, Mark Twain, a/k/a Samuel Clemens, was on a long tour through Europe, which he wrote about in A Tramp Abroad. That winter, he jotted down notes about dining in the continent’s hotels, which would later appear in chapter 49. He savages the breakfasts, especially the coffee—”You can get what the European hotel-keeper thinks is coffee, but it resembles the real thing as hypocrisy resembles holiness. It is a feeble, characterless, uninspiring sort of stuff. . . .” Dinner also leaves him in a fury, prompting a satirical menu: “Soup (characterless) . . . Roast—mutton or beef—tasteless—and some [of] last year’s potatoes . . . Roast chicken, as tasteless as paper . . . Decayed strawberries or cherries.” He includes a recipe for English pie that finishes: “. . . set in a safe place till it petrifies. Serve cold at breakfast and invite your enemy.”
(The food is not the only thing the writer finds wanting in Europe. “One lingers about the Cathedral a good deal, in Venice. There is a strong fascination about it—partly because it is so old, and partly because it is so ugly.”)
But Twain drops the acid pen when he imagines the feast he’ll eat when he sets foot back on American soil. The list of 81 dishes that follows is a beautifully restrained, earnest love letter to our native foods: “Radishes. Baked apples, with cream. Fried oysters; stewed oysters. Frogs. American coffee, with real cream. American butter. Fried chicken, Southern style. Porter-house steak . . . American toast. Clear maple syrup. Virginia bacon, broiled. Blue points . . . Cherry-stone clams. San Francisco mussels, steamed. Oyster soup. Clam soup. Philadelphia Terapin soup. . . . Lake trout, from Tahoe. Sheep-head and croakers, from New Orleans . . . Roast turkey, Thanksgiving style. Cranberry sauce. Celery . . . Canvas-back-duck, from Baltimore. Prairie hens, from Illinois . . . ‘Possum. Coon . . . Bacon and greens, Southern style.”
This catalog of dishes—the daydream of a homesick man—is significant in more ways than one. In writer Andrew Beahrs’s hands, the fantasy menu becomes a biography of Twain, a historical record, an elegy for what we have lost from our table, and a spur to preserve what we still have. In his new book, Twain’s Feast, he chronicles what happens when he tries to find some of those foods today. The short answer, as you probably guessed, is that many of them are gone or endangered. Beahrs also uses each item to glimpse into a certain period of both Twain’s and the nation’s life.
The ranging list of ingredients reflects an amazing bio. There was nothing Twain didn’t do, living hard from one coast to the other all before he was 35, when he got married and settled in Connecticut. We find him hunting prairie hens (a kind of wild grouse) and raccoon on his uncle’s Midwestern farm, and then piloting a steamboat on the Mississippi and discovering New Orleans seafood. From there, he escaped Civil War military service by heading out to Nevada, where he ate Lake Tahoe trout, wrote for a newspaper, started a forest fire, and was challenged to a duel. He fled from that to San Francisco, where he got drunk and slurped Bay oysters all day long, before marrying into East Coast society and bombing at a Boston speaking engagement after gorging on turtle soup.
It makes for a rollicking story. But also a sad one, as the American table lost much of what was regionally distinctive about it over the course of Twain’s lifetime. Railroads suddenly linked the country end-to-end, and the invention of ice cars meant that, for the first time, food could be shipped long distances. In the beginning of Twain’s life, ingredients were, by necessity, local and seasonal, and he relished a good roast prairie hen. By the end, those birds were being shipped from the Midwest to feed voracious appetites on both coasts, and their popularity was pretty much the death of them. They’re now extremely rare and protected—terrapin turtles and Lahontan cutthroat trout followed nearly the same trajectory. You can still eat oysters and mussels in San Francisco, but they won’t be from the Bay, which is polluted with high levels of mercury.
The chapter on New Orleans sheepshead fish is the saddest of all, because it’s so cheerful. In that Southern city most associated with Twain, Beahrs discovers that sheepshead from the Gulf are not only still around, but also plentiful, sustainable, cheap, and totally delicious: “I can’t distinguish between crab and sheepshead. . . . It’s all like lump crabmeat, fresh and sweet and bathed in a creamy pepper sauce,” he says. In the short time between the writing and the reading of that chapter, of course, we may be losing the ability to eat that fish, too, at least for a time.
Beahrs’s food writing has appeared in The New York Times and Gastronomica, and he has also penned two historical fiction novels: The Sin Eaters, a tale of Jacobean England, and Strange Saint, about colonial America. His research and reporting are stellar; his eye for historical detail and enthusiasm for intrigue propels Twain’s Feast along. In a nice touch, the book is punctuated with recipes from Twain’s time, which have a terse and practical poetry. But every so often, Beahrs’s self-referential tics get in the way of the story. There’s not much need for an asterisk next to “I’ve been hoping to see a pair [of prairie hens] coupling,” that leads to the footnote, “I do have a life, I swear to god.”
In an 1880 Atlantic review of A Tramp Abroad, William Dean Howells wrote: ” ‘The average American’ will find much to enlighten as well as amuse him, much to comfort and stay him in such Americanism as is worth having, and nothing to flatter him in a mistaken national vanity or a stupid national prejudice.” You’d have to add “much to sadden him,” but otherwise you might say the same about Twain’s Feast.