Friday, March 18, 2016

Book 3 of the Food Books, 3/18/2016, _Twain's Feast_, by Andrew Beahrs

I currently live in Elmira, NY, which is solidly part of Twain Country (a broad and not at all contiguous country, because Sam Clemens traveled broadly and extensively). Twain's wife Olivia [Livy] Langdon was from here, and attended Elmira College here in town. The Clemens summered here at the Langon farm, Quarry Farm, just outside of town. Twain and his family are all buried here. As such, when I saw Beahrs' book at my local library while looking for food books, I felt compelled to grab it. I'm very glad I did, because Twain's Feast was, itself, a feast of a book.

Beahrs' premise is delightful in its simplicity. In 1879, Twain and his family toured Europe extensively. Twain hated the food he encountered at European hotels, and longed for American food. In A Tramp Abroad, Twain published a "feast" that he wished he could be served, listing all of the things he wished he could be served as soon as he stepped off the boat in New York. The list is long, ranging from radishes through multiple types of bread (both Northern and Southern style), numerous forms of seafood including various fish and oysters, lots of fowl, both wild and domestic (including canvasback ducks), and ending with a lavish selection of American desserts and pastries. It's quite a thing, and it makes me, first, hungry, and then, merely through reading the list, sated and even overly stuffed. Anyway, Beahrs decided to investigate several, indeed, many, of the foods on Twain's list, and discuss what made them, at their heart, American foods. He concludes that the foods, and the ways in which Twain (in Tramp and elsewhere) describes these foods being prepared and served, are intensely regional - that, separate from the places (and, indeed, the specific moments) that Twain experienced them, the foods would not have been as appealing to Twain. This book is, then, an ode to the idea of terroir (not unlike the book American Terroir, which I reviewed here).

It is also an ode to "wild" food and "local" food. Beahrs, like much of the current body of food writers (see Pollan [whom Beahrs name-checks], Bittman, and others), is a strong advocate for the "locovore"movement and a strong critic of modern American foodways based largely on corn and non-local food. I am sympathetic to the idea, and Beahrs' descriptions (and the descriptions he borrows from Twain and his contemporaries) do little to erode that sympathy - locally (and naturally) grown and produced foods sound wonderful. Beahrs' depiction of coffee being poured over fresh non-pasturized cream - "I coaxed the raw, almost clotted cream from the bottle with gentle taps, spreading it thickly on the bottom of two cups with the back of a spoon. Then I let dark streams of coffee ripple under the cream's edge, raising it like a hot-air balloon's yellow silk." (page 6)- wow. I'm afraid to try it, because I know I can't afford the $14 for half a pint he paid for the privilege. Likewise the grass-fed beef and non-vegetarian farm raised eggs - "Their yolks are a deep gold, approaching amber; recently five Soul Food Farm yolks survived over a minute of whisking by Erik, which any parent of a four-year-old will recognize as evidence of almost metaphysical strength" (page 114-115) - I simply can't afford to indulge. And that's the fundamental problem with the locovore, natural food, movement - it's great if your budget can sustain it, but if not, it's unattainable. And if the movement is unattainable, Beahrs' presentation of the food you can afford can feel insulting, even scolding. Which is not, I think, his intention. Sadly, however, that consideration detracted from my pleasure as I read this otherwise delightful book.

And the book IS delightful. Beahrs traces Twain's voyage from Hannibal, MO to New Orleans, and then out west to Nevada and California. Beahrs himself travels from San Francisco to Illinois to look at prairie chickens, and the Baltimore to look at terrapins, to Arkansas to eat raccoon, and to Vermont to enjoy maple syrup. He discusses the social history of consuming oysters, canvas-back ducks, terrapins and lobsters (among other things). The book is peppered with historical recipes for the food being discussed, some of which look like something I could cook, and some of which lack basic elements, like numerical measures of ingredients. Beahrs is exceptionally skilled at describing food, both as a cook and as a diner. He also has a fine ear for the descriptions of others, selecting perfect passages from Twain and his contemporaries which evoke both the food and also the time in which the food was prepared and consumed.

So. If you like historical and social analysis of food, or Mark Twain, or travel books, or sumptuous descriptions of food (including boiled raccoon), then this is a good choice for you.


This week featured both Pi Day (on Monday) and St. Patrick's Day (on Thursday), two notable days which (at least here) are celebrated through the production and consumption of specific foods. On Monday, I baked a tarte au sucre - a Quebecois sugar pie (recipe here), and my wife made a pumpkin pie, and we had a delightful shepherd's pie for dinner. I've been using a technique that Jamie Oliver discusses here, wherein mashed potatoes form an entire crust for the pie, bottoms and side, and not just the top. My recipe is pretty basic - fried ground beef on the bottom, then a layer of frozen mixed veg, then a layer of baked beans, and then mashed potatoes. Historically, I have put shredded cheddar cheese on top, but my eldest child does not like "roasted" cheese, so, in deference to her, I chose not to do so this week. Instead, I dotted the top with butter, and broiled it before serving, making for pleasantly crispy potatoes on top. Everything was yummy, and we had pie for breakfast through Wednesday.

Yesterday, I made a fairly simple potato soup with an Irish soda bread (this is my go-to recipe - the first one, with the whole-wheat flour - I am not entirely above food-snobbery autheticism; I just can't afford all natural foods), and that was also well received. We have all eaten well this week!