For most of America's early history, when all food was local, the best of our emergent cuisine came from the wild. But almost as soon as some of our foundational foods were born from the rich stew of immigrant techniques and American raw ingredients, they had flickered into oblivion. In Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens (The Penguin Press, 323 pages, $25.95), California food writer Andrew Beahrs tells the story of eight of Twain's favorite American foods, among them "possum," "coon" and "Philadelphia Terrapin Soup."
On a trip to Europe in 1878, Twain composed an exhaustive menu of his perfect meal. Trolling through the 80 uniquely American dishes, it is clear the foods he loved were expressions of places he loved: "Prairie-hens, from Illinois. Lake trout, from Tahoe. San Francisco mussels, steamed." Twain was a glutton everywhere he went. Beahrs takes the reader on a trip to these places, as they would have been in Twain's day—on a Missouri raccoon hunt, for example—and how they remain now. Gillett, Ark., is one of the last places in America where raccoon is eaten at least once a year. At the annual Coon Supper, 600 animals are boiled in huge vats of bloody brine and served up family-style in the high-school gym.
Beahrs' book fits into a popular new category that, directly or indirectly, laments our industrial food system. Call it "Where Have All the Good Foods Gone?" He has provided a genuine contribution to the genre. He writes beautifully, even tenderly, about the natural history of some of 19th-century America's most popular foods, many of them wild, and many of which have now disappeared from our culinary lexicon. A description of a meal the author re-created from Twain's menu (dry-aged steak and buckwheat cakes) is reverently solemn: "Soon there was nothing left but a plates of crumbs and a platter divided by a lonely border fence of bone."
Thankfully, Beahrs doesn't wallow in self-imposed nostalgia. What Beahrs and Twain find to love in American food is its inventiveness, the informal language it speaks, a straightforward honesty—qualities Twain replicates in his menu, which lists ingredients rather than recipes: "Yes, he was strutting a bit—Twain was in an ostentatiously American mood," Beahrs writes. Twain's Feast gives us a rare gift—a peek into the secret hideouts of our culture (complete with recipes), a celebration of a uniquely American style of pleasure. It's summed up nicely in the third item on Twain's menu: "American coffee, with real cream."
Andrew Beahrs reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, July 15. Free.