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REVIEWING

Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Food in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens

by Andrew Beahrs


The Penguin Press | 2010 | 323 pages | $25.00

Reviewed by Fred Beauford


author andrew beahrs

When I was the editor of the Crisis magazine, during the first years of the 90’s, I embarked on several press junkets organized and paid for by the giant oil company, Chevron, which had its major office in San Francisco.

They had assembled a small group of magazine editors from around the country. We all - black, white and Hispanic, male and female - edited publications that were thought to influence public policy; so, without anyone saying it, it was obvious to all of us what the point of these trips was really about.

The first year we were first taken to Alaska, where we stayed in Anchorage, and daily piled into two large helicopters to journey northward to Prince William Sound, where the worst oil spill in American history had recently occurred.

***

Journalists can sometimes be a deeply cynical, mistrustful group of folks. While standing on the banks of one of the many islands in the Sound, I stuck a toe in the cold Artic Ocean, (just so I could claim that this was third ocean in which I had done so), as Chevron explained  how things had returned to close to normal.

All at once, a large fish breached the water. Just as quickly, a huge bald eagle swooped down from one of the tall trees that surrounded the Sound, grabbed the fish between its sharp talons, and flew off.

I exclaimed to the editor next to me, in total wonderment and awe, perhaps from watching so many animal shows on PBS, “Holy Shit. Did you see that?”

“Chevron probably staged it,” he coolly replied, unimpressed.

***

The following year we were treated to the French Quarter in New Orleans, and several more helicopter trips, only this time to off-shore oil rigs, far out in the Gulf of Mexico.

All of these memories come pouring back as I continue to witness, like most Americans, the sickening sight of vast amounts of oil pouring into the Gulf; back then, one of the top executives from Chevron assured us (editors), with great confidence, (as we had lunch on one of the rigs in a pristine lunch room, surrounded by pervasive signs warning against any kind of spark or flame), that such a thing could never happen.

And, strangely enough, reading Andrew Beahrs’ Twain’s Feast: Searching For America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens, also brought those trips back to me.

Like Clemens, as a young man, I was a wanderer and note-taker, who marveled over and over again about the different experiences I had encountered nationwide. And what could be a more different than the northern tip of the New World, and the southern tip of mainland America?

Yet, from the point of view of experiencing local cuisine, Alaska proved to be disappointing.  Anchorage was filled with Pizza Hut’s, MacDonald’s, Burger King’s and Wendy’s. For a moment I thought I was back in downtown Burbank. I came all the way up here for a Big Mac? Where was my reindeer stew?

***

But fortunately, New Orleans the next year lived up to it’s billing. I felt that the people there went out of their way to present authentic local food and superb preparation. I discovered that the Gulf of Mexico was a chef’s and eater’s delight, and that the many world-class creative chefs and restaurateurs in New Orleans seemed to take great pleasure in showing off their culinary expertise.

***

America was once filled with distinct local cuisine that could perhaps rival the Gulf. Beahrs points out that the slow erosion and disappearance of distinct local food started long before the franchising of America.

For the much prized prairie chicken it was replaced with corn, “When it comes to the prairies,” he writes, “the effect of America’s subsidizing of industrial corn has been nuclear, reducing thousands of species to one, or at best a handful.”

In the case of the tasty Lake Tahoe Lahontan cutthroat trout that Twain loved so much, dams, miners, loggers and the Army Corp of Engineers soon led to its demise.

In addition to the usual suspects, there was also the impact of railroads and steamships, “which carried ice to cool rooms, frost drinks—and, of course, to preserve and ship food. In 1842 railroads were experimenting with using ice-filled cars to ship fish. Exactly twenty-five years later, one J.B. Sutherland received a patent for a refrigerated train car,” Beahrs writes.

With Sutherland’s patent, the Big Macs slowly began their century long journey to complete domination.

***

One common theme in Twain’s writing regarding a meal, was his longing for food cooked in the “southern style.”

Beahrs writes: “Twain lived in New York and New England for as long as he did the South. Still, he remained nearly nationalistic about Southern Cooking. Like most of his contemporaries, Twain probably didn’t think much about the dishes’ origins…he didn’t name the enslaved women who worked in the log kitchen…or the smokehouse behind that.”

“Though these women were almost certainly several generations removed from Africa, their skills—and those of millions of women like them—were anchored in the cooking and customs of their great grandmothers’ homeland…West Africans shared six major cooking techniques: boiling in water, steaming in leaves, frying in deep oil, toasting beside the fire, roasting over the fire, and baking in ashes.”

The black slaves on the young Samuel Clemens’ uncle’s farm employed all of these cooking techniques. The now famous Mark Twain spent the rest of his adult life savoring the memories of this great, well-prepared feast that he knew as a child.

Beahrs’ has the acute insight of both the historian and the feature writer and Twain’s Feast is filled with well-drawn portraits, complete with recipes, as Mark Twain traveled far and wide, with memories of the antebellum south always a part of him.  He also points out how much we have lost in our headlong rush for convenience, speed and “progress.”

My one regret about Twain’s Feast is that the book could have used some closer editing. Many of Andrew Beahrs’ chapters go on far too long, and lose their storytelling power. This book could have easily been cut down by at least 10 percent.

With that caveat in mind, this is an American history book that will no doubt not be used in history courses, where it should be taught. I hope not, as that would be a loss. This is American history at its best and fullest.



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