Mark Twain: Writer, Humorist, Locavore
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.
After he left Tahoe for the last time, Twain never tasted its trout again. Other foods of the feast, though, he did encounter later in life. When he hunted prairie-chickens as a boy, some 12 million of the large grouse nested in the Illinois tallgrass; during mating season, their booming calls were a nearly physical presence. But by 1879, soon after Twain's return from Europe, a friend of Twain's could send a brace of prairie-chickens as a Christmas present to his Hartford home, shipping them over some of the many miles of new railroad that were steadily erasing the culinary boundaries between Hannibal and New York. A few decades after that, the birds were nearly gone, victims of the John Deere self-scouring steel plow that converted their habitat to cornfields (today a spare 300 remain in Illinois).
It's no longer responsible or realistic to eat wild foods in the same amount and variety that Twain did, as modern stresses on oceanic fish amply prove. But, though Twain was most precise when speaking about wild foods, his favorite dishes were all fresh, local, and lovingly prepared; writing of them, he used words like earnest and generous, genuine and real. Whether wild or domestic, the dishes were based less on recipes than on the quality of the ingredients. At its heart, Twain's feast was about the connection between food and place, the way that the things that sustain us depend upon places we remember and love. That lesson remains as vital as ever.
One way of respecting it is to restore and preserve Twain's beloved American places, and the foods they've provided for centuries. Some of the latter, like prairie-chickens, are useful benchmarks in judging the health of a distinct American landscapes. Others can actively aid in recovery; reefs of native oysters in San Francisco Bay, for instance, clean an amazing volume of water—up to 30 gallons per oyster per day. Building the structure for the reefs takes work, and we'll never be able to eat the oysters growing there (much of the mercury pollution dates back to Twain's day). But the shellfish can clear the water in small inlets, help essential eelgrass to thrive, and provide food to the small fish that in turn feed wild salmon. In this case, Twain's food isn't so much an end as a means, a way of restoring the bay's vitality.
And respecting the connection between food and place also doesn't have to involve wild foods at all. When Twain was a boy, he went into the woods hunting wild turkeys, imitating their calls "by sucking the air through the leg bone of a turkey which had previously answered a call like that and lived only just long enough to regret it." Lost in the forest, he came upon an abandoned log cabin and its garden, which was full of perfectly ripe tomatoes. "I ate them ravenously," he wrote, "though I had never liked them before. Not more than two or three times since have I tasted anything that was so delicious as those tomatoes."
Twain hunted turkey and returned with tomatoes; he went into the woods and found a garden, one whose fruit had outlasted the gardener's home. He was open to unexpected flavor, wherever he found it. Today, seeking out that kind of fresh, immediate taste from nearby farmers and producers helps to protect and sustain distinct American landscapes—orchards, dairy pastures, even beekeeping operations and cranberry bogs. Every community garden and every unique neighborhood restaurant is a nod to the kind of food Twain knew and loved. When we choose foods grown close to our homes—fresh food, lovingly prepared—we also choose to protect the places we know, and care about, and want to see last.