Can you explain the significance of the title Twain’s Feast?
It’s my name for Twain’s fantasy menu of favorite American foods, which he wrote at the end of an 1879 European tour (and wanted waiting on the dock when he returned home). The menu was a real love letter to American food, with eighty-five dishes, including classics like Southern fried chicken and fresh produce like pumpkins, asparagus, and butter beans. But the regional specialties Twain was most specific about were all wild, such as lake trout from Tahoe, prairie-hens from Illinois, and canvasback ducks from Baltimore.
Because Twain was so exact about where the wild foods came from, I decided to figure out when would have tasted them during his youthful rambles—whether it was as an apprentice printer in Philadelphia, a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi, a silver-miner in Nevada, a reporter in San Francisco, and so on. That meant learning about the landscapes that Twain knew and loved, and that his favorite foods relied on, from the tallgrass prairies of Illinois to San Francisco Bay in the years after the Gold Rush. When Twain remembered the foods, he was certainly thinking about distinctive and delicious flavors—but also about beloved places, and his own life.
What led you to become interested in researching and writing about food? Mark Twain?
I’ve always loved cooking from old books—not just old cookbooks, but novels and short stories and memoirs. I don’t think I’m alone in this; I’m sure I’m not the only one who broiled steaks after reading Joseph Mitchell’s “All You Can Hold For Two Bucks,” or whose standard steak sauce became a blend of butter, Worcestershire, and drippings. It’s enormously fun to cook a meal like one enjoyed by an author you love, like being able to visit locations of favorite novels, but in your own kitchen.
I’m also fascinated by American regional cooking. Learning about and tasting regional foods grabbed my imagination, and let me think about the country in (to me) new and different ways. So reading Twain’s feast menu was like hitting the mother lode. It was long and varied enough to promise years of reading and cooking and exploring, and given that it came from one of the country’s great authors, who I’ve read and admired since childhood, I knew I had to write about it. Of course, I didn’t know right away where that writing was going to take me.
Why is your book especially relevant today?
This is an energetic time for American food; there’s a genuine excitement about fresh, local, delicious foods and about returning to the many roots of the country’s cuisine. Seed exchanges, urban gardens, farmer’s markets, the growth of home beehives and chicken-keeping, the way bakers, cheesemakers, and specialty farmers are becoming as well-known as celebrity chefs: more and more Americans are looking to our national agrarian traditions as sources of inspiration and direction for the future. It’s wonderful to find that a figure as beloved as Mark Twain appreciated the same things people are working to restore today; he knew how to live, and most certainly how to eat.
A sad counterpoint is the growing awareness of how easily foods can be lost. We can lose them because of something as mundane as splitting up orchards into exurban developments, or merely growing only those varieties of squash that ship well, but the saddest and most dramatic recent example has to be the BP oil spill in the Gulf. The spill may destroy the breeding grounds of shrimp and oysters, and with them the livelihoods of the shrimpers and oystermen who were just starting to get back on their feet after Katrina. Many of Twain’s favorite foods aren’t available anymore because of changes to the land, whether that meant plowing up the tallgrass or damming the Truckee river; it’s heartbreaking to watch something like that unfold in real time, and the fact that we know what’s happening certainly gives us a greater responsibility to act.
Where did you begin your research for this book?
My kitchen, when I made Twain’s favorite breakfast of porterhouse steak, biscuits, buckwheat cakes, and coffee with real (meaning raw, or unpasteurized) cream.
But the book really took shape when I started learning about prairie-chickens in Illinois and the tallgrass prairie. I’d thought at the start that I might write a cookbook, with a short introductory note about the historic background of each recipe. When I started reading about prairie-chickens, though, I was startled to find that they’d once been hunted by the tens of thousands, and were eaten in many of America’s best restaurants. So the real research began in Newton, Illinois, where I went to hear male prairie-chickens “boom,” or call, during their elaborate, early-spring mating dance. Hearing the booms echo across one of the state’s few remaining prairies, and learning that in Twain’s day there were fourteen million birds in the state, as opposed to only 300 now, was a moving experience for me; I can’t even imagine what the booms must have sounded like a century and a half ago.
I realized then that there was way more to say about these foods than how to cook them. There was a whole story about the transformation of the American land, a transformation that Twain lived through, observed, and even in some small ways contributed to.
What surprised you most when you were doing research for this book?
There were constant surprises. I wasn’t sure how much there would be to say about, for instance, cranberries—I didn’t know that mariners tended many of the first bogs, or that their language is still used by cranberry farmers today (stepping out of a bog is called “going ashore”). I didn’t know that sheepshead would lead me to the difference between Creole and Cajun cooking, or that recipes for opossum with sweet potatoes have roots in the African diaspora. The disappearance of prairie-chickens was tied to the invention of the plow; stewed terrapin turned out to be an African-American preparation adopted by the wealthiest diners of New York and Philadelphia. I didn’t know any of that going in.
In terms of the research and writing, I was surprised by how easy it was to find people doing relevant work who loved what they do and were eager to talk about it. I’d thought it would one of the biggest challenges, but there are a lot of enthusiastic, thoughtful people out there willing to share their depth of knowledge about making maple syrup, or what it’s like to cook in one of New Orleans’s top restaurants, or the history of the Chesapeake terrapin fishery. Meeting them gave me a more complex, more appreciative view of the country as a whole, and often a burst of new energy and momentum in my writing.
What did Mark Twain teach you about food?
Twain knew as well as anyone that when and where we eat a meal, and who we eat it with, makes a big difference to how food tastes. I can’t think of a better way of saying it than his “Nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs. Ham and eggs, and after these a pipe–an old, rank, delicious pipe—ham and eggs and scenery, a “down grade,” a flying coach, a fragrant pipe and a contented heart—these make happiness. It is what all the ages have struggled for.”
What we taste at those special moments help to mark out our lives; my own feast would include fried walleye from Minnesota, New Orleans beignets, sopapillas and pork adobado from Chimayo, New Mexico, softshell crabs from the Chesapeake, Mennonite whoopee pies…I know where I was when I ate those things, and who I was with, and even who I was at those times in my life. I think I appreciate those memories more than when I began.
And I came to realize that all my favorite food memories involve dishes somehow rooted in the places I ate them, whether that was because of the surrounding environment or a local tradition or just the presence of a particularly great cook. A McNugget just can’t live in your memory the way a perfect local oyster can. When we cook, eat, grow, or buy distinctive American foods, we’re making a decision to support some of what’s memorable and valuable in our own lives. And when we let those things go, they’re gone for good.
What did you learn about Mark Twain by getting to know the foods and
places important to him?
Twain is such an iconic figure (he even trademarked the name Mark Twain at one point) that it can be easy to lose sight of the man behind the image. It’s easy to see him as a force of nature, someone destined for literary greatness. But he could easily have ended up as a printer, or a steamboat pilot, or in a number of other professions. Writing this book was a chance to tag along vicariously on one of the great extended roadtrips in American history, the ten years when Twain careened from one job and coast to the next before settling in as one of the country’s most beloved voices. Learning about the foods and places of his youth, especially in the days when he was still just Sam Clemens, helped me to understand the joy of those years, and also the melancholy he sometimes felt when thinking back on them.
How did the writing process differ from your previous books?
The biggest difference was in having Twain for a guide. To some extent, I’m always guided by my characters; my first novel, Strange Saint, only took off for me when I started to feel that Melode (the heroine) was talking with her own voice, that I was becoming more of a transcriber. There’s never any question about Twain speaking for himself; he’s one of America’s strongest voices, with millions of words in print. He wrote at an unnervingly fast pace—he had far more published work than I think most people are aware of, and that’s before you get into the thousands of letters and extensive journal entries and speeches. Fortunately the menu gave me a sharp focus, and helped keep me to some specific questions: when did Twain eat trout at Tahoe? How were the croakers in New Orleans cooked? Following Twain was both daunting and clarifying, opening up a whole world to explore but also, thankfully, defining my targets.
Were there any foods you were unable to include in the book for any reason?
Definitely. Connecticut shad was one of the most important foods on the eastern seaboard throughout the colonial period, but I’d already gone into a lot of detail about trout, sheepshead, and croaker, and didn’t want to include another fish. Frogs would have been interesting as well—I’m still not sure how Twain would have wanted them prepared, but I’d love to know whether he was thinking of Mississippi River towns, New Orleans, or San Francisco when he wrote that. Others just didn’t fit given my overall focus on local wild foods, or were too broad: “all kinds of American pastry” is intriguingly open-ended, but that might be its own book.
What are three important things you’d like readers to take away from your book?
“Fresh” and “local” are sometimes seen as recent catchphrases; it would be great if people also came to see them as part of a long American food tradition. The best American food has been fresh and local for centuries; it’s just that as we’ve moved away from our culinary roots it’s become more important to insist on it, and more obvious when we do so. We need to start seeing fresh and local as the norm, and industrial processing as something new in the human experience. So my single biggest hope is that people might take away some of Twain’s passion for good, fresh, lovingly-prepared food, and insist on having it in their own lives.
I’d also like for people to reconsider how we think about abundance. Americans love abundance—I love abundance. Wanting a surfeit of something is very deeply ingrained in the national character. But it’s a question of the kind of abundance we work for: do we want the abundance of having a whole lot of one or two things, or that of having many different things? Right now we’re definitely caught up in subsidizing the former, with a lot of our apparent variety being an illusion—so much of our food is a variation on chopped, heavily salted corn. Twain despised monotony; he wrote with open scorn about people who faked olive oil or butter, and I can only imagine what he’d have said about a gray fast-food patty. I’d love for us to get greedy to try another kind of tomato, for farmland to surround our cities, more clean rivers where we can catch fish—for the kind of memorable variety that Twain knew throughout his life.
Lastly, I hope the fact that some of Twain’s foods have disappeared or been greatly diminished will help readers to appreciate their own favorite foods, and think a bit about what might be done to ensure they can continue enjoying them. The foods in the book were the first things Twain thought of when he thought of American cooking; he thought of them as basic to the nation’s cuisine, and probably didn’t anticipate that some could vanish as quickly and completely as they did. Good food means good land, and good water; I think that’s a lesson we very much need to learn.