The Story of America, Told Through Mark Twain’s Favorite Foods
Mark Twain was a well-traveled literary superstar, so famous that his editor once journeyed to Washington to ask President Theodore Roosevelt if he would move Thanksgiving because it coincided with Twain’s birthday plans. (Twain moved his party.)
But in 1879, on a book tour through Europe, he craved the simplest foods from home, with agonizing specificity. Twain wanted Early Rose potatoes, a Vermont-bred heirloom, roasted in the ashes of a fire. Mussels from the waters around San Francisco. And hot broiled Virginia bacon.
He compiled a list, an extensive fantasy of a meal, which he imagined sitting down to enjoy right off the steamship when he got home. That list is now a snapshot of some of the most cherished regional American foods of his time.
But for a vast array of political, cultural and ecological reasons, few of Twain’s picks — terrapin, prairie chicken and raccoon among them — would be considered an integral part of our national identity today. This month, the audiobook company Audible released an eight-episode series, hosted by the actor Nick Offerman, that explores the reasons.
Offerman, who compared the taste of turtle meat to that of chicken, was eager to get his hands on some of the more esoteric foods on Twain’s list. In May, as part of the show, he organized a dinner at the Mark Twain House & Museum, the author’s carefully restored home in Hartford, Connecticut, where Twain lived with his wife, Olivia Clemens, after they were married in 1870.
Offerman asked Tyler Anderson, a Connecticut chef who competed on “Top Chef,” to put together a menu inspired by Twain’s list.
Anderson produced an eight-course meal. It started with raw oysters with a frothy sherry-maple cream, and moved on to smoked raccoon sausage wrapped in caul fat. The fifth course was sheepshead, a tough, bony fish he poached in olive oil and served with potato purée.
The audio series, loosely based on Beahrs’ 2010 book “Twain’s Feast,” includes plenty of snippets from that dinner, along with excerpts from Twain’s fiction and memoir, weaving in new interviews and reporting that examine changes all over the country through the prolific author’s palate.
Each episode of the series focuses on a different ingredient that Twain loved. Raccoons, like sheepshead, are still plentiful, but the recipes for its meat that were published in the original edition of “Joy of Cooking” have since been edited out. Tastes change.
“The foods Twain loved, we took for granted as American classics,” Beahrs said. “But these things that are part of the richness of everyday life — they can vanish very, very quickly.”