'Twain's Feast' author traces writer's favorite foods

'Twain's Feast' author traces writer's favorite foods

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We usually think of Mark Twain with a cigar in his mouth, not a fork. But Twain didn't love only smoking: He loved to eat.

On one of his many extended trips to Europe, he tired of hotel dinners and pined for fresh, plentiful American food:

"Some smoking hot biscuits" with "real butter, firm and yellow and fresh."

He longed for buckwheat cakes and porterhouse steak an inch and a half thick, "hot and sputtering from the griddle" and "a great cup of American home-made coffee, with the cream a-froth on top."

And this was just part of the fantasy breakfast he wrote about in his classic "A Tramp Abroad."

Twain took firm stands on things, so European butter that lacked salt was a 'sham" and diluted cream caused him to damn German cows in general ("maybe they can't give good milk").

And he lovingly recalled, like many Americans, the food of his childhood and superb meals on joyful holidays.

"It makes me cry to think of them," Twain wrote of meals at his uncle's Missouri farm. Andrew Beahrs recounts this memory and more in his new book, "Twain's Feast" (Penguin Press, 323 pages, $25.95).

Beahrs doesn't say what Twain ate for the Fourth of July, but much of the farm food he treasured was a typical summer spread: fried chicken, corn on the cob, tomatoes and pie.

After reading the list of more than 80 foods Twain wrote longingly of in 1879, Beahrs started wondering about how many of those foods were still available. He decided to tell the larger story behind Twain's "feast."

"I wanted to talk about how these stories were connected to American landscapes," says Beahrs, 36, who has a master's degree in anthropology-archeology and has published two historical novels.

"The transformation of American places and what these foods said about that. I became fascinated by the way Twain's life allowed me to see the transformation because he traveled through a lot of these places as a young man."

Beahrs will be in St. Louis for two book events, including a lunch at Herbie's restaurant (see accompanying box for details). But before his visit, he talked from his California home about his research and how he'll try almost anything, from pig's tail to roasted raccoon.

The raccoon receives its own chapter in "Twain's Feast." Beahrs traveled to Gillett, Ark., a rice-farming area known for its annual Coon Supper, an event that draws 1,000 diners in a town of about 800. Hunters contribute the skinned meat (leaving on one paw to prove the animal's identity).

The smell of big vats of meat is nauseating, "like nothing I've smelled before but which I'll now recognize until I die," Beahrs writes.

He says, however, that after hours of cooking, it's hard to figure out the real flavor of coon, but he'd eat it again.

Beahrs goes back in time to recount how, after days of working, slaves would hunt raccoon at night to supplement food rations, and he moves forward in time to explain that urban sprawl is a cushy environment for the raccoon:

"The Humane Society estimates that twenty times as many raccoons can live in an urban environment as in a comparable rural area."

On the other hand, a Twain favorite that has almost disappeared, and that Beahrs did not get to taste, is the prairie chicken. The author ventures to Illinois to observe them.

From behind a blind, Beahrs describes how he hears the male birds call mates with their "boom," but he notes the only state that allows limited hunting is Minnesota. Illinois, which once had hundreds of thousands of prairie chickens, now counts only about 300.

Beahrs recounts that one of the curious things that led to the prairie's (and thus the prairie chicken's) demise is the self-scouring steel plow that John Deere invented in 1837.

For decades, farmers used the plow to turn prairies into cropland for corn, and the combination of corn and prairie was perfect for the birds. Finally cornfields triumphed, and with the advent of the railroads, there was yet another effect:

"The simultaneous growth in railroads and the prairie-chicken population meant that the birds would be one of the first fresh, inherently local foods to be eaten thousands of miles from where they were hunted."

By the time Twain listed his "feast," prairie chickens were hunted by the trainload, and Beahrs says the development of insulated shipping barrels may have added to the desire for the rich "black" meat of prairie chicken. A friend of Twain's would send him a brace for Christmas dinner at his Hartford, Conn., home.

A Connecticut native himself who had never even heard of the birds, Beahrs traces the complex links between it, the increase in Illinois corn, the decline of the prairie, technology and Twain's palate.

Several chapters in his new book focus on foods more appealing than raccoon (oyster, trout, cranberries, maple syrup) and on a delicacy once almost as endangered as the prairie chicken (diamondback terrapin).

When Twain returned to the Mississippi River 25 years after he'd been a riverboat pilot, he was astonished at how man-made things like levees had changed it.

Although this year, 100 years after his death, he likely would be even more disturbed by the changes to the wild lands and waters he loved, Beahrs said that in some ways, America is returning to the kind of food Twain favored:

"He liked fresh food, stuff eaten at its peak. … We're in an interesting and exciting moment for American food. For the last 30 years or so, there's been a movement toward the fresh, local food that Twain champions."

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