You know that chestnut of an essay question—what famous historical figures would you like to have dinner with? Well, never mind Marie Antoinette or even Thomas Jefferson, I want to have dinner with Mark Twain. The stories and the food would be equally good.
This is what Andrew Beahrs knows, and has written a whole book based on Twain’s homesick list of foods he missed while on a European trip. It is lip-smacking; I’m trying to keep the drool off my keyboard as I type: American toast, clear maple syrup, lettuce, succotash, string beans, apple dumplings with real cream. It is a list that brings to mind warm hearths, crisp woods, and sunny kitchen gardens, and that covers “prairie and orchard, wetland and dairy.”
Homesickness can certainly sharpen ones senses, but it seems Twain was always interested in food, writing, “If I have a talent, it is for contributing valuable matter to works upon cookery.”
We’re so used to thinking of European food as superior to American—after all, it is a cuisine while American foods are childish treats like hot dogs and ice cream cones—that it comes as a bracing draught to hear Twain describe it “as tasteless as paper.” He had inadvertently stumbled onto American terroir.
Beahrs is caught by Twain’s nostalgia-driven list and he searches for the foods, peeling away a paving of fast food restaurants and culinary trendiness, uncovering the woods, hearths, and gardens that created the food Twain missed so much. He finds the last place in American you can hunt prairie hens, tracing the foodways in Twain’s life, from his southern boyhood, through his western and riverboat adventures, and finishing his life as a New England literary monument.
Beahrs’ most melancholy finding is that many of the foods Twain recalls were already lost to him by the time he was an adult. We worry about contemporary environmental degradations, but the Goldrush 49ers were already suffocating San Francisco Bay oysters with the silt run-off from their mines. Oceans of prairie grass habitat had been lost to cultivation under John Deere’s plow.
Our era of fresh and local food has an element of nostalgia, but it’s surprising to realize how much food in Twain’s time was shipped across the country and around the world. Railroad expansion began in 1848 and it wasn’t long before barrels of oysters “were carried to even the remotest part of the United States.” Beahrs notes that those disappearing prairie hens “would be one of the first, inherently local foods to be eaten thousands of miles from where they were hunted.”
Beahrs’ writing is both evocative and instructive. You’ve heard about the mighty Mississippi, but his descriptions of navigating a flooded river—creeping through a gray indistinct landscape, past families huddled on roofs above the floodline, amid prehistoric fish risen to the surface—will make you feel the river’s power. And for Marylanders who’ve always wondered about just what it takes to cook a terrapin, Beahrs’ description will make you thankful for the ease of a microwave.
By looking to the past, Beahrs emphasizes the importance of our current environment—not only the natural habitats of the “wild things that were at the heart of American cooking,” but the history and social community that created and preserved them.