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

100% Positive Reviews


Pros: Reads like a well-crafted novel. An interesting take on Mark Twain as foodie and locovore.

Cons: Contains errors of fact and interpretation


Mark Twain As Locovore
Reviewed by Brook Elliott
Let us start this little essay with an admission: I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Mark Twain fan. Twain's occasional one-liners and even rarer insights are interposed with ponderous writing, interminable (and often pointless) asides, and Herculean similes and metaphors that go on for pages, but which shed little light on the subject.
Indeed, I've often wondered at the motivation that drives English teachers to impose Twain on generations of reluctant students.
Andrew Beahrs doesn't quite agree. A novelist and California-based foodie, Beahrs is in love with Twain. So much so that he wears blinders whenever Twain's work comes up. Beahrs sees things that aren't there, ignores things that are, and, in general, confuses Samuel Clemens, the entertaining public speaker, with Mark Twain, the writer. 
In 1879, Twain was into the second year of a European tour that would eventually lead to the all but unreadable A Tramp Abroad.  In Beahrs' view, the entire book consists of mocking all things European. As he proclaims in his introduction, "Along the way he'd mocked….and the food, most of all the food. He detested the food. From watery coffee to decayed strawberries to chicken ‘as tasteless as paper,' Twain thought European food monotonous, a hollow sham, a base counterfeit." 
Yes, Twain expresses that view. But what Beahrs chooses to ignore is that Twain was not talking about European food, but about European hotel food; and not from the grand hotels at that. One could just as easily judge American food on the "continental" breakfasts served at chain motels.
At one point, Twain composed a list of the foods he most missed, some of which include geographic tags. He didn't want just bacon, but Virginia bacon, and Philadelphia terrapin soup, and San Francisco mussels, and Sierra Nevada trout. 
From all this, Beahrs concludes that Twain was one of the first of the locovores. "Fresh. Local. Lovingly prepared. Intimately tied to the life of a place. These were Twain's standards, as they are for many food lovers today." 
An interesting thesis, if true. Unfortunately, it's all built on a house of cards. 
Before writing this review I took the time to struggle through A Tramp Abroad. Once I found a copy, that is. Significantly, my local library doesn't own a copy, and it took several weeks before they could track one down. 
A Tramp Abroad is 406 pages long. Only six of those pages deal at all with bad mouthing European food. And, as noted above, Twain is talking strictly about European hotel food. His list of most-missed foods fills only two thirds of a single page. 
The list is composed of 83 distinct items, some of which are repetitious, and, despite Beahrs continually referring to it as a menu, there is no indication that Twain wanted them all in one meal. For instance, Twain misses boiled potatoes, in their skins. But yearns equally for new potatoes, minus the skins. I seriously doubt, as Beahrs contends, that he was looking forward to eating both of them at the same time.
Of the 83 items, only 14 have anything like a locovore identity. Eleven carry the tag "southern" or "southern style." And eight carry the qualifier "American" or "American Style."
This is hardly the over-riding locovore attitude Beahrs reads into it. Indeed, he often contradicts that viewpoint by noting how Twain was not adverse to eating foods that had been transported hundreds of miles---a process he admits has been going on for centuries. But he tries to self-justify this contradiction with comments such as "Eating dried or salted foods is very different from eating a banana picked 5,000 miles away." Really? How so? What's changed is not the transporting of foodstuffs, but the technology which allows us to move fresh foods---as was just starting in the late 19th century, and which allowed Twain to enjoy fresh prairie chickens in his Hartford, Connecticut home. 
Indeed, in virtually every instance where Twain includes a location tag it's not because the food is unique at that place. It's because he associates it with an episode of his life. Nothing wrong with that; it's something that anyone writing about food (especially wild foods) does. The feasts of memory almost always are about where, and when, and with who, rather than about taste per se. This is memory, not terroir.
Twain listed "lake trout from Tahoe," for instance. Well, he wasn't talking about the species called lake trout, but merely about cutthroat trout from a lake, as opposed from those of a stream (i.e., "brook trout from Sierra Nevadas"---which are the same cutthroat trout). It's not that the fish have terroir; only that Twain remembers the place and circumstances of first eating them. 
    Most of Beahrs' interpretation of Twain's culinary viewpoint comes not from A Tramp Abroad, but from other works: Twain's autobiography, and letters, and lectures, and things written about him. 
Another problem is that Beahrs has a worldview (unfortunately shared by many) that leads to sweeping conclusions based on gut feelings rather than facts. For instance, "When an animal was once hunted by the millions, it's natural to assume that that is why it isn't exactly blotting out the sun anymore. But in the case of the prairie chickens, the real culprit was habitat loss."
Maybe, for somebody who thinks history started at ten o'clock this morning, such a contention is believable. But if you look at a complete list of American rare, endangered, and extinct species, you'll only find one instance in which hunting played a significant part. The simple, biological fact is that it's always habitat loss. 
Twain's Feast is filled with such observations of the world as Beahrs wishes it to be, rather than the way it is. And these can be a major distraction. Why? Because the astounding thing is how a book, which can be so wrong in many of its particulars, can be so right in its totality.
So, let's take a look at the book. 
For openers, it's a good read. Unlike Twain, Beahrs can write, and, despite its occasional flaw, it is simultaneously well written, insightful, interesting, and entertaining; all told with the dramatic use of words that are the currency of any good novelist. 
When the book first came in, I read it in one sitting, and thought I understood everything Beahrs had to say. Subsequent rereadings (I've read it thrice, at this point), however, reveal new insights, tidbits I somehow missed before, whole sections that at first seemed superficial but which now have meaning. In short, it reads like a well-crafted work of fiction rather than a history. 
There are, in general, three approaches to writing food history. 
The more common can be typified by Mark Kurlansky. Kurlansky is one of my favorite food writers. But his work is more traditional. Mark takes a food topic, and traces its history and development, basing the work more on research than on personal experience. Mark happens to do this better than most. But it's certainly not a new approach.
More recently is the group represented by Michael Pollan, who use food and food history as a metaphor for social structure and a call for action. Again, because of the quality of his writing, Pollan is, perhaps, the best of this breed. In one sense, this group can be compared to the muckrakers of the early 20th century. 
Then there's the third group. Putting aside the falseness of the premise, what Beahrs has done is join the ranks of food historians who use an historic event as a jumping off point for their own journey of exploration. There have been a spate of these books, recently, following, no doubt, the broader trend towards "participatory journalism." Many times, as with Pat Willard's incredibly bad America Eats!, you have to ask, "what was the publisher thinking?" But when they're done well, they are a valuable part of any culinary bookshelf.
And there's no denying that Beahrs does it very well indeed. The book's subtitle says it all: "Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens."
What the book actually is is a series of explorations. Using Twain's list (well, part of it), Beahrs set out to find how much of those local, fresh foods are still available; how much we've lost; how (if at all) we can recover from the loss. He weaves his personal experiences on these journeys with historical documents and recipes from 19th century cookbooks, coming, always, back to Twain's food outlook as the basis of his travels and his own cooking.
In all there are eight such journeys of discovery, ranging from post-Katrina New Orleans to the shores of Lake Tahoe, to the sugar bushes of New England. And, if he confuses Twain's sense of terroir with his own, it's no big deal. Because we discover it with him, and gain a greater understanding of the artisans who are in the forefront of preserving all that was the best of America's fresh, local foodways. Above all, he does this without preaching. Beahrs doesn't tell us why returning to our culinary roots is important; he shows us. 
At base, it doesn't matter that the thesis is overstated, or that Twain had little choice in whether to eat fresh, local foods or not. Even the flawed opinions and interpretations are of little matter. What Beahrs has produced is an insightful look at the meaning of the  locovore movement. As such it should be read by anyone---amateur or professional---involved in food availability and preparation. 
The fact that it's an exciting read as well is just gravy on the pot roast. 
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Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens

One young food writer's search for America's lost wild foods, from New Orleans croakers to Illinois Prairie hen, with Mark Twain as his guide. In the winter of 1879, Mark Twain paused during a tour of Europe to compose a fantasy menu of the American dishes he missed the most. He was desperately sick of European hotel cooking, and his menu, made up of some eighty regional specialties, was a true love letter to American food: Lake Trout, from Tahoe. Hot biscuits, Southern style. Canvasback-duck, from Baltimore. Black-bass, from the Mississippi. When food writer Andrew Beahrs first read Twain's menu in the classic work A Tramp Abroad, he noticed the dishes were regional in the truest sense of the word-drawn fresh from grasslands, woods, and waters in a time before railroads had dissolved the culinary lines between Hannibal, Missouri, and San Francisco. These dishes were all local, all wild, and all, Beahrs feared, had been lost in the shift to industrialized food. In Twain's Feast, Beahrs sets out to discover whether eight of these forgotten regional specialties can still be found on American tables, tracing Twain's footsteps as he goes. Twain's menu, it turns out, was also a memoir and a map. The dishes he yearned for were all connected to cherished moments in his life-from the New Orleans croakers he loved as a young man on the Mississippi to the maple syrup he savored in Connecticut, with his family, during his final, lonely years. Tracking Twain's foods leads Beahrs from the dwindling prairie of rural Illinois to a six-hundred-pound coon supper in Arkansas to the biggest native oyster reef in San Francisco Bay. He finds pockets of the country where Twain's favorite foods still exist or where intrepid farmers, fishermen, and conservationists are trying to bring them back. In Twain's Feast, he reminds us what we've lost as these wild foods have disappeared from our tables, and what we stand to gain from their return. Weaving together passages from Twain's famous works and Beahrs's own adventures, Twain's Feast takes us on a journey into America's past, to a time when foods taken fresh from grasslands, woods, and waters were at the heart of American cooking.

AuthorAndrew Beahrs
Dewey Decimal Number394.120973
LabelPenguin Press HC, The
List Price$25.95
ManufacturerPenguin Press HC, The
Number Of Items1
Number Of Pages336
Product GroupBook
Product Type NameABIS_BOOK
Publication Date2010-06-24
PublisherPenguin Press HC, The
StudioPenguin Press HC, The
TitleTwain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens
FeatureNotes: BRAND NEW FROM PUBLISHER! BUY WITH CONFIDENCE, Over one million books sold! 98% Positive feedback. Compare our books, prices and service to the competition. 100% Satisfaction Guaranteed
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