Twain’s Feast

Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens, by Andrew Beahrs, Penguin Press RRP$25.95, 336 pages

During a tour of Europe in 1879, Mark Twain became so horrified by the food – the chicken was “tasteless as paper”, the cherries “decayed”, the coffee a “hypocrisy” – that he concocted a list of 80 American dishes for which he pined. Lake Tahoe trout, Missouri partridges and Philadelphia terrapins all lay testament to the variety of US cuisine, and the depths of Twain’s homesickness.

Beahrs unearths eight of these dishes, sifting through cookbooks and histories to recreate them. Some, like the oyster omelette or steak and syrup breakfast, are lip-smackingly good. Others, such as roasted possum and boiled raccoon, require stronger stomachs.

The book reveals Twain as being responsible for some of the most sensuous descriptions of food in all of literature. And it shows how his chosen dishes, although utterly local, form a coherent American cuisine.

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