22 August 2012

Review: Twain‘s Feast: searching for America's lost foods in the footsteps of Samuel Clemens by Andrew Beahrs


As anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time will know, I enjoy reading books about food and books about history, and I love travelogues. This book combines all three. The premise of the book is to hunt down some of the foods that Mark Twain wrote about longing for when months of insipid European hotel food were beginning to wear on him during the journey he describes in his travelogue A Tramp Abroad (I know just how he feels). 

Beahrs is an unapologetic foodie and clearly a fan of Twain‘s and he seems to have been tireless in chasing after the foods he chose to discuss in the book. Some of these he makes sound mouth-watering, and the reader can‘t help joining in his lament over how some of these foods have been lost or stopped being as easily available as they were in Twain‘s time, e.g. prairie chicken and terrapin. Others, I must admit, I would give a miss, such as raccoon and possum. Cranberries and maple syrup I am familiar with (when this is written, I am happily digesting a dessert of fresh crowberries with cream and maple syrup), and this is the first food book I have read that has actually made me want to taste raw oysters.

Beahrs spent freezing hours in a blind in a cornfield in Illinois to observe prairie chickens, attended a yearly raccoon supper in a small town in Arkansas, helped build undersea beds for oysters to attach themselves to in San Francisco Bay, visited cutthroat trout hatcheries in Nevada, a diamondback terrapin breeding ground in Maryland, restaurants and outdoor markets in New Orleans to sample fish, cranberry growers and maple syrup farmers in various places on the east coast of the USA.

Along the way he sings the praise of local food and bemoans how American foodways have changed for the worse since Twain‘s time, sometimes because the habitat of one food species had been destroyed in favour of another, more profitable one, as is the case with prairie chickens vs. corn and grain. Additionally, although I‘m not sure that was one of the things he was trying to do by writing this book, he also makes a convincing case for the existence of not one genuinely American cuisine, but several, all based on fresh and local foods, blending the raw ingredients and cooking methods known to the Native Americans with those of European immigrants and African slaves, into a something uniquely American. The recipes from old American cookbooks sprinkled throughout the text serve to underscore this and show how the dishes Twain rhapsodised about may have been prepared.

If this book has a fault, it is that the chapters seem somewhat disjointed, not really connected, even with the theme of Twain and his favourite food running through the book. It‘s almost like a series of interconnected articles rather than a complete book written as such. Twain fans may be disappointed in that he leaves Twain behind for pages at a time, but it must be remembered that Twain is just the excuse: what the book is really about is food.

Dedicated epicureans may also be disappointed that Beahrs doesn‘t go all out to try to taste all the foods he mentions, e.g. terrapin and prairie chicken, but I think it shows respect for these increasingly rare animals. One day the conservation efforts and habitat reclamation he writes about may bring these species back in sufficient numbers to be eaten ethically and without guilt, allowing even common foodies like myself to eat like Twain.

4 stars.

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