Courtesy of Penguin Press
Whether he was in San Francisco savoring Olympia oysters, rafting down Germany's Neckar River with a cold beer, or in Hawaii tasting flying fish for the first time, Mark Twain had a love of food that was inseparable from his love of life. Remembering the fried chicken, cornbread, and fresh garden vegetables served on his Uncle John Quarles's prairie farm, he wrote, brought him nearly to tears. Whenever he recorded in his journal that he'd enjoyed a trout supper, it was certain that he'd ended the day content. And when he recalled stage coaching through the Rockies, he reflected that nothing helps scenery like "ham and eggs ... 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."
But the joy Twain took from food was most vivid in a long fantasy menu of favorite American dishes he composed towards the end of his 1879 European tour . Having suffered through more than a year of dismal hotel cooking, he wrote down the 85 dishes he said he wanted waiting for him the moment he arrived home. The menu ranged from fresh American produce like butter beans, asparagus, pumpkins, and "green corn, on the ear" to meats like porterhouse steak and broiled chicken to regional dishes like Southern-style hoe-cake and "oysters, roasted in the shell, Northern style." But of all the fresh, local dishes of his imagined feast, the most deeply rooted , the most inherent to specific American places, were wild.
Twain was so exact about wild foods because, during years of rambling travels, he'd tasted them all at their best—which meant eating them where they were from.
Twain didn't just want mussels; he wanted steamed mussels, from San Francisco. He wanted terrapin from Philadelphia, stewed with sherry and cream (the recipe's main rival, from Baltimore, omitted the cream—Twain loved cream). He wanted partridge from Missouri, shad from the Connecticut River, and perch and canvasback ducks from Baltimore. The list went on. These were things that depended on the grasslands, woods, and waters of especially American places. And they were things that, in Twain's youth, could be found nowhere else.
In fact, Twain was so exact about wild foods because, during years of rambling travels, he'd tasted them all at their best—which meant eating them where they were from. He'd eaten prairie-chickens as a boy in Hannibal, Missouri, just across the river from the great tallgrass, and terrapin as a printer's assistant in Philadelphia. He'd eaten sheepshead and croaker fish as a steamboat pilot in New Orleans, and Lahontan cutthroat trout in Tahoe when he fled west, away from the draft agents of the Union and Confederate armies. In a very real sense, his menu was a memoir of fondly remembered travels, from the prairies to the mountains and from the New Orleans docks to the backstreets of San Francisco.
So Twain understood something about the rootedness of America's wild foods, and how they both relied on and helped shape the places they came from. When Twain was at Tahoe, for example (the first time was in the autumn of 1861), the lake's Lahontan cutthroat trout were simply colossal; the record specimen weighed in at over 31 pounds. It's hard to read about Twain eating such a fish, fried simply in bacon fat, and not think of Tom Sawyer's discovery in the eponymous novel that "open air sleeping, open air exercise, and a large ingredient of hunger" make freshwater fish incomparably delicious, especially when the fish has been swimming an hour before. And it's impossible not to reflect that Twain's description of Tahoe as the "masterpiece of the universe" must have owed something to his knowledge of the titans drifting in the depths.