Mark Twain: a model for local-eating moderns?

Mark Twain, having breakfast in Olympia on Aug. 11, 1895 Credit: The Scholars Lab, The University of Virginia

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.

Whatever happened to Illinois prairie chickens anyway? Is there anyone who still eats raccoon?

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.

A good example is the native Sierra trout that Twain loved, including the wild, up-to-30-pounders that were once catchable in Lake Tahoe. This in an era when a “mammoth” trout in an East Coast market was 7 pounds, an average one between 1 and 4. In Twain’s time at Tahoe during his Civil War-era Nevada sojourn, the crystal clear lake held an enormous population of, well, enormous fish, and Twain delighted in trying to catch them and get them into the frying pan with a little bacon fat and flour as soon as possible.

When the railroad came to the Sierras, the trout rapidly disappeared, hauled out by commercial fishermen who shipped them to fish markets in Chicago. They also shipped Sierra ice, which contributed to what Twain felt was the greatest single American culinary contribution to the civilized world: ice water.

The story of the trout is often replicated. A regional food finds a market, and the technology comes along that exploits it. San Francisco’s appetites nearly wiped out the Olympia oysters. Corn farmers and hungry Easterners nearly killed off prairie chickens (a kind of grouse) by both destroying their habitat and readily consuming them until they had gone the way of the buffalo. Over-fishing, dams, and development dealt severe blows to Twain’s beloved Sierra trout.

On the other hand, some foods have fallen out of favor because they are no longer part of a hungry American’s diet. Raccoon, for example. Beahrs goes to a “coon supper” in Arkansas and describes in detail how they are prepared and served, a ghastly description of an unappetizing meat that is now mostly consumed as a regional rite.

Some groups define themselves by eating foods no outsider would eat, such as Scottish haggis or Norwegian lutefisk. In some Southern places, raccoon is that dish. But Beahrs also notes that eating local wasn’t always a yuppie thing, but rather a necessity. He gives a fascinating account of Southern cooking, and tells us that muskrat and raccoon were part of the diet of folks who weren’t getting their protein from other sources. Who today wants to order roast opossum, or cook a turtle alive in its shell?

Slaves, in particular, played a huge role in shaping what we think of as Southern cooking, from greens and grits to fried chicken. Twain, from Missouri, was raised on these foods. Many slaves supplemented their plantation diets with game and fish. Blacks cooked for blacks and whites, and they cooked in styles from their native Africa. Southern cooking, Beahrs says, is replete with dishes that have very near equivalents in West Africa, adapted to New World foods. In any event, he’s convincing that no one would eat raccoon unless they had to keep alive, or keep tradition alive.

One of the most powerful, and sad, sections of the book deals with Mississippi, New Orleans, and the Gulf of Mexico. Beahrs does his best to help the local restaurant economy recover from hurricane Katrina, reeling off a list of what he’s eaten there in a week that rivals Twain’s feast.

His menu includes charbroiled oysters, blackened duck breast with oyster cream sauce, fried rabbit liver on pepper-jelly toast, hen and andouille gumbo, Creole tomato salad, a po’boy with roast beef, ham, gravy and blackened bits from the roasting pan, fried shrimp and fries, pecan waffles, beignets, cafe au lait, even spearmint snowballs. And all this before attending a food festival to ransack their tables laden with free samples.

But it serves to remind us how much of what we experience of a place is how it tastes. We literally are what we eat, and identity is tied to what a place provides us to consume. The Gulf, one of the most diverse marine ecosystems on the planet, offers plenty to eat; the merging of cultures from French and African-American and Creole and Cajun and Midwest American and who knows what else combine to create a food web that is complex, exciting, and unique. Such webs are maintained by tradition, but they can be threatened by disaster and mismanagement.

Beahrs recounts the “wild” Mississippi of the mid 19th Century when Twain piloted riverboats. This was a place that steamboat pilots had to master, an ever-changing, almost primeval landscape. Twain was shocked when he returned to the Mississippi after decades away and saw what dredging and re-channeling and modern agriculture had done to it. The meandering, flood-prone river was tamed into something safe for navigation, even more so by the Army Corps of Engineers, and those changes literally altered what could live and grow there. The rich soils and land once created by the river were made no more, instead washed away deep into the Gulf.

Place isn’t static, nor are human appetites, which seem infinitely adaptable. The book includes recipes for a dish of oysters and mutton, and a “trout pie” with eels and artichokes that, in my opinion, are best left in history’s dustbin. But the picture of change on the Mississippi as seen by Twain, and written about by Beahrs in the aftermath of Katrina, is made more poignant because so much tragedy is documented even before the recent BP oil disaster, the consequences of which are likely to be as profound as anything that had beset the region to date.

Beahrs’ book is by no means simply about the past. He offers a look at today’s producers who are trying to bring local foods back or use more sustainable methods to provide them. He rakes cranberries and taps maple trees for syrup in New England, and he helps restore oysters to San Francisco Bay. He introduces us to some of the folks who get their hands dirty in order to get America back to a more sane, less industrialized food chain, without being overly romantic about it. In fact, there’s nothing much romantic about the hard work these people do. The romance is in being able to enjoy the fruits of their labor while we can, hoping that in doing so we are doing more good than harm to the places we love.

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