When author Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, swung through the Pacific Northwest 115 years ago this summer, he likely dined on local oysters, months without "R's" notwithstanding. Twain loved oysters, and he was no stranger to the native Olympia bivalves that were harvested here. The author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn was wined and dined from Spokane to Portland to Olympia to Vancouver to Seattle (the Rainier Club still has his signature in its guest registry). Few banquets of that era did not feature oysters when they were obtainable.
During Twain's time in San Francisco in the 1860s, the city had an amazing appetite for the critters. Having mostly wiped out the native oyster population of San Francisco Bay, the boom-town's residents were getting oysters from whoever could ship them in.
Washington state, which sent much of its native lumber to build San Francisco's famous Victorian homes, also sacked its native oyster beds to feed a growing California population. They came from Puget Sound and Shoalwater Bay. They were tiny, with a distinct coppery flavor, and San Franciscans called them "Olys" and devoured them by the ton.
Twain himself ate Olys, in fact oysters of all kinds, and eventually, once the railroads and ice made shipping oysters cross-country more viable, bigger Eastern oysters mostly replaced the depleted supply of delicate regional Olys.
Twain was eager to try oysters from everywhere, including a batch shipped up from Mexico. One raucous evening, he ate a Mexican batch in McDonald's Saloon and became violently ill with diarrhea and vomiting. Twain blamed the oysters, but a companion noted that "where there is a barrel of whiskey and only half a bushel of oysters, it is hardly fair to assume that the poison is all in said oysters."
Such anecdotes and observations about eating local and the changing food chain are found in a new book by Bay Area author Andrew Beahrs, Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens (Penguin, $25.95). Twain is hardly associated with food per se, but as a well-traveled, literate 19th-century American with a great capacity for capturing the flavor of places, it turns out Twain is a wonderful vehicle for exploring the nation's diet and regional culinary habits, and how they've evolved over nearly a century. It is also a way to explore what it means to be a locavore, past and present.
In A Tramp Abroad published in 1880, Twain complained about the lackluster food served in European hotels, and he made a list of some 80 American foods that he would like to feast upon when he returned home. That list is Beahrs' jumping-off point. It not only includes generic items (butter, radishes, tomatoes) but is filled with specific local and regional specialties, including Illinois prairie chicken, Philadelphia terrapin soup, early rose potatoes, raccoon, Mississippi black bass, Sierra Nevada brook trout, clear maple syrup, southern fried chicken and, of course, oysters (Blue Points) on the half shell.
Beahrs' goal is to track down the ingredients of Twain's feast, to research and present 19th-century recipes to understand how Twain's food might have been prepared, and to find lost foods and learn their history. Whatever happened to Illinois prairie chickens anyway? Is there anyone who still eats raccoon?
In some cases, Beahrs tries to replicate a Twain meal, such as a breakfast featuring coffee with fresh cream, buckwheat cakes, and an aged, two-inch-thick Porterhouse steak with butter. In doing so, it turns out that many of the things taken for granted in Twain's day, such as aged meats or unpasteurized cream, are not so readily available, at least not without the assistance of active foodies and the money to pay a premium to get them. Much of the everyday food of Twain's era is pricey and exotic today. Some of it is even essentially extinct or impossible to get.
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