Review by Liz Williams
Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens by Andrew Beahrs, Penguin Press 2010
The sub-genre of food memoir that is the culinary journey has become popular of late. Not a retrospective look at where life has brought the writer – not that journey – but rather more a travelogue of planned travel. There are fine examples of such books, notably Coming Home to Eat by Gary Nabhan, but others have defined a goal and eaten their way to it in ways that seem forced and narcissistic. Andrew Beahrs has set a goal in Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens to eat through the regional American foods pined for by Samuel Clemens in A Tramp Abroad and other works. It is an example of the former.
Twain is very much present in this book. His very strong opinions about American food – especially as contrasted with European food – are appealing and obviously heartfelt. Beahrs allows Twain’s writings and thoughts to be paramount, even as he recounts his own experiences with each of the foods he has chosen to explore.
Beahrs participates in each of the dishes either by cooking the food (as he does with the steak at breakfast or preparing raccoon in Gillett, Arkansas) or cultivating it (as he does the San Francisco Bay oysters). He also explores the relationship of the food to Twain’s life, and the historical and cultural context of the dishes.
Beahrs makes you appreciate America’s table. The bounty that we have lost to homogenization and commercialization is apparent. It was becoming obvious to Twain as well. We no longer have lives with the time to appreciate these delights daily. But what a pleasure it is to explore them now and again.
Beahr isn’t just reading or researching the past – he is living it. Beahr makes the connection to the past real and tangible by actually eating it. He makes eating an integral part of the process of understanding the past. It has made me ready to find a terrapin or a raccoon and begin cooking.