Mark Twain Eats America – Writ Large and Small(er)

Turtle Soup, anyone?

IN 1879, a homesick Mark Twain sat in an Italian hotel room and wrote a long fantasy menu of all his favorite American foods. The menu began as a joke, with Twain describing the 80-dish spread as a “modest, private affair” that he wanted all to himself. But it reads today as a window into a great change in American life — the gradual, widespread disappearance of wild foods from the nation’s tables.

Thus starts the succinct and warmly-laden op-ed from Wednesday’s New York Times. Strategically placed to be read on the day before our Thanksgiving, it reads in taste like an elegant prelude to the day – a frame upon which thoughts could be hung and embroidered.

Clicking the link to this story (which on my usual homepage was mixed in with all the other Thanksgiving offerings) the title appeared: ‘Where the Wild Things Were’. Maurice Sendak makes me jump with joy, so I started to jump with joy at even that least hint about anything to do with his books. If I were not just scraping by with barely enough sanity to know that I don’t want to embarrass my children by ruining the idea of ‘mother’ in some vital way for them, I’d buy and wear the T-shirt I picked up and held onto tightly at a store I saw recently – it was silkscreened with the cover illustration from ‘Where the Wild Things Are’. It made me sad to finally put it down and walk out of the store without it.

Discontinuing momentarily my musings on ‘what motherhood should be’, Maurice Sendak and goofy T-shirts I continuing on with reading the NYT piece.

The authors name was Andrew Beahrs, writing from Berkeley, California. Andrew Beahrs – where had I heard that name? Berkeley I dismissed from my mind – as much as I could, anyway. This wasn’t going to be about Sendak but it just might be good anyway.

Andrew Beahrs rocks when talking Twain. (Or when talking Samuel Clemens, who of course was who Twain was.) Here’s another snippet from his piece:

The Pilgrims appreciated wild foods for their contribution to survival; Twain, for their taste and their hold on his memory. All saw the foods as fundamental to the America they knew. None would have imagined that many would one day be seen as curiosities.

After finishing reading this piece, I knew where Andrew Beahrs had entered my mind before. And why this all seemed vaguely familiar.

In the Gastronomica Spring 2007 Issue: Investigations – Twain’s Feast – “The American” at Table, Beahrs writes of Twain and of the American foods he described in ‘A Tramp Abroad’ in a much more extensive piece. Not an appetizer, limited in size to the smaller plate of the op-ed page – but as a longer piece, as a full-course meal.

(That particular issue of Gastronomica is one of my favorites to date. If you do not subscribe to the journal, there is one downloadable article per month available through the website. The Spring 2007 offering was not the Beahrs piece, but H.E. Chehabi’s ‘How Caviar Turned Out to be Halal’ is an astonishing tale of political intrigue, social mores and tradition, the ways of formalized religion, ritual, and more.)

From Publisher’s Weekly Oct. 10, 2008:

Penguin Press has just acquired Twain’s Feast: ‘The American’ at Table. Laura Stickney beat one other bidder for North American rights via Emma Sweeney. In the book, author Andrew Beahrs will search for America’s lost foods with Twain as his guide, weaving passages of Twain’s writing and historical research into a narrative of Twain’s travels; Sweeney compares the book to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (also published by Penguin Press) or Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.

Yes, I think I’ll read it. 🙂

“A Tramp Abroad” by Mark Twain (section with menu)
New York Times Op-Ed “Where the Wild Things Were” by Andrew Beahrs


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