Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens

Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens, by Andrew Beahrs. The Penguin Press, NY, June 2010. 978-1-101-73481-9 (e-book).  300pp.

Clemens, homesick during a hurriedly-undertaken  European year,  unimpressed [ahem] by hotel cuisine, composed a menu of dishes he’d wish served upon return home:  this is the starting-point for Andrew Beahrs’  in-depth exploration of the erosion of American food.  Beahrs early points to what distinguishes  Clemens’ menu: “Fresh. Local. Lovingly prepared. Intimately tied to the life of a place.” Chapters cover Illinois Prairie Hens, Possum and Raccoon, Lake Tahoe Trout, Oysters and Mussels of San Francisco, Philadelphia Terrapin, New Orleans Sheep-Head and Croakers, Cranberries,  and  Maple Syrup. Beahrs visits each location in turn, seeks out the locals with practical knowledge; he tries his hand at “dry” cranberry harvesting, he stuffs himself to embarrassment at a New Orleans Food Expo, he goes above and far beyond, eating at the Gillett (Arkansas) Coon Supper. He uncovers the hidden history of the foods, investigating such areas as the multiple impacts of industries like logging and commercial farming practices, massive habitat loss as in the American Prairie, US-Native American relations, Levees and the other well-meaning atrocities committed by what later became the US Army Corp of Engineers; all these play their parts in the devastation of American food.

As a home gardener of none but open-pollinated, heirloom vegetables,  I love how meticulously Beahrs handles his subject; which is not to say that it is an amusing stroll, with recipes, through American culinary history.  I read the book with a mounting sense of  horror,  that inevitable slow-motion train wreck  of American provender from which I  cannot look away. Twain’s Feast is more than an adroit chronicle of American foodstuffs;  Beahrs demonstrates how critical it is for the individual to take whatever steps possible–not  futile pushing back, at the homogeneity overtaking our food, but at the very least to think about what happens  in the conveniece of buying, say, factory-farmed eggs. The erosion of  an abundance, our country’s birthright, documented here can be seen to reflect Twain’s own life, from youth’s ebullient, roistering enjoyment of life to that of a man brought at length to despair through the loss every life holds; Clemens’ losses were at times egregiously painful. This is no dry pedant’s tome: this is the outpouring of a cook, a historian, a researcher and a lover of Mark Twain.

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