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Wed, 18 Aug 2010 19:05:55 -0400
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Beahrs, Andrew. _Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the
Footsteps of Samuel Clemens_. New York: The Penguin Press, 2010. Pp. 323.
ISBN 978-1-59420-259-9. $25.95.

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from the
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Carolyn Leutzinger Richey
Tarleton State University

In _Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of
Samuel Clemens_ Andrew Beahrs attempts to resurrect Twain's culinary
standards of "Fresh. Local. [and] Lovingly prepared" (13). From the first
page of the Introduction, Beahrs lets the reader know his basis for the
book: Experiencing Twain's Feast. Beahrs also informs us that Twain was, to
use our modern jargon, a "foodie." Twain's cuisine of preference was the
culinary heritage of nineteenth century America. In _A Tramp Abroad_, after
tiring of the poor food he tasted in Germany and Switzerland, Twain
constructed the contents of a feast from his memories of childhood and from
his American travels. He wrote that he would like to have this "modest,
private affair, all to myself" upon his return to America (Chapter 49). Much
of Twain's feast was unknown in nineteenth century Europe. Unfortunately,
much of Twain's cuisine has now been lost in our own modernized America.
According to Beahrs this loss is due, in part, to the destructiveness of a
growing population, industrialization, environmental contamination, and the
changing dietary preferences of our evolving popular culture. This book is
Andrew Beahrs' personal journey to explore Mark Twain's culinary heritage
and ultimate feast while pointing out the losses which Twain would mourn and
the losses that we should mourn.

Each of the eight chapters follows a segment of Mark Twain's life that
serves as a touchstone to explore the lost foods of America, including
Twain's childhood in Missouri; his time as a riverboat pilot; his travels to
Nevada, California, and Europe; and his family life with Livy and the
literary culture in the East. Beahrs travels in Twain's path to Lake Tahoe,
San Francisco, Hartford, and New Orleans. While in New Orleans, Beahrs
collaborates with a local chef to reconstruct the menu of "sheep-head fish
with mushrooms, shrimps, and oysters" (188) that Twain and Horace Bixby
shared. Along with the retracing of Twain's steps, Beahrs also delves into
the reasons for the shifting culinary trends. In San Francisco, he defines
the oyster obsession that occupied Twain and then goes on to retrace the
decline of the specific type of oysters prepared for Twain's feast and
explains the shifts in sources and types reflecting modern oyster
preparation and tastes.

Organizing his book around significant events of Mark Twain's life and
literary career, Beahrs mentions young Sam's remembrances of the food on the
Quarles farm. During the chapter covering Twain's recollections of the trout
from Lake Tahoe (mentioned initially in _Roughing It_), Beahrs illuminates
Twain's use of the memory of the "taste of such fresh fish when the boys
hide out on Jackson's Island in _Tom Sawyer_: 'They fried the fish with the
bacon and were astonished; for no fish had ever seemed so delicious before.
They did not know that the quicker a fresh water fish is in the fire after
he is caught the better he is'" (89).

Besides following Twain's footsteps to revisit significant events in his
life, Beahrs also researches and reproduces the recipes and cooking methods
by which Twain's feast would have been prepared. Mingled throughout each
chapter are the excerpts from various culinary sources of nineteenth and
early twentieth century America. For example, to prepare Twain's "prairie
chickens stewed whole," Beahrs cites Mary Newton Foote Henderson's
_Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving_, 1877; to prepare the classic
"Hangtown fry" he cites Estelle Woods Wilcox's _Buckeye Cookery and
Practical Housekeeping_1877. Beahrs also found the origin of this
extravagant breakfast and dined upon it in Placerville, California.

The predominant feature of this book, which would be of most interest to
this forum and which interested me the most, is Beahrs' research and the
connections he makes between Twain's writing and the food of his time. From
the Introduction to his Afterword, Beahrs validates his sources as he
travels the United States, reenacting and recreating Twain's culinary
memories. He cites "chapter and verse" of Twain's meal preferences from
_Roughing It_, _A Tramp Abroad_, _Life on the Mississippi_, and _Adventures
of Huckleberry Finn_ to mention just a few. In the Acknowledgments, Notes,
and Selected Bibliography, Beahrs supplies an extensive list of sources
including Twain's writings, scholarly criticism, American historical
references (both regional and national), and a myriad of culinary sources.

Beahrs also offers critical, although limited, insights into Mark Twain
himself. This is especially true of the Whittier birthday celebration and
the audience's and Twain's reaction to his miscalculated tale. Beahrs
enumerates most of the details of the celebration, first providing a history
of what would have been the gourmet cuisine for the literary elites and then
recounting Twain's speech and the reactions to it (both his own and the
public's). Prior to giving his speech, "Twain ate and drank for over three
hours . . . in high Victorian style" (156). The meal began with "Oysters on
shell," continued with "Terrapin Stewed, Maryland Style," and finished with
"Charlotte Russe, Gelee' au Champaign . . . [and] Coffee" (157). However, as
Beahrs recounts, Twain's "instincts failed him" because he "didn't know
enough to give up and sit down" (158-159). Four months later, Twain writes
William Dean Howells and explains that he wants to take his family to Europe
"to retire from the public at present" (160).

Beahrs frequently shifts his focus away from Twain to look at the changes in
the regional cuisines and the environmental, ecological, and social changes
in America. With the title _Twain's Feast_ I expected more Twain. Instead,
Twain and his feast act more as a guidepost to the evolution of American
cuisine and to the deterioration of our indigenous American ecological
systems. For example, Beahrs laments the loss of the prairie hen in Illinois
and much of that chapter details his participation in the attempts to
preserve the grasslands that remain; at Lake Tahoe, Beahrs laments the loss
of the indigenous trout--"Lahontan cutthroats" and the native American
tribe's efforts to restock the lake with the species (98). Thus goes the
majority of the book. Beahrs tells of Twain's preferences for the feast and
then he meanders through a myriad of related topics: recipes from the
nineteenth century, histories of environmental and ecological changes in the
country, and his search to reproduce the dishes Twain mentions in his
festive menu from _A Tramp Abroad_.

I'm a "foodie." I love to watch _Top Chef_ and _Hell's Kitchen_; I
frequently DVR many of the shows on the Food Network, and my current
favorite movie is _Julie and Julia_. Additionally, my library of recipe
books takes up a good part of my kitchen counter space (with Julia Child's
books, of course, in the forefront). I'm also a "Twainiac." I've read and
re-read most of his novels and my home library comprises a large number of
references on Twain and Twain criticism. As a "foodie," I appreciate Andrew
Beahrs's quest to reproduce Mark Twain's favorite foods. I also closely
identify with the components of American cuisine that Twain and Beahrs
enumerate. Because I am a native Missourian and grew up on some of the same
types of country cuisine, I nostalgically recall the tastes and smells of
the menu. I long for "bacon and greens, . . . sliced tomatoes with sugar or
vinegar, Apple dumplings, with real cream", plus most of the items on his
list. However, as a "Twainiac," I would have preferred a more intricate
integration of Mark Twain into the entirety of the book.