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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Twain's Feast is Delicious
The author, Andrew Beahrs, begins his book by recreating a favorite breakfast of Mark Twain's noted in the book A Tramp Abroad. Twain dreamed of the delicious food of his homeland as he traveled through Europe, disgusted with the cuisine he encountered - runny cream, tasteless chicken, half-rotted produce, etc. His fantasy breakfast included a two inch thick dry aged,...
Published on May 4, 2010 by M. Hill

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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars As Much About the Author as About Twain
Twain's Feast is only partly about Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. A lot of the book is about Berkeley author Andrew Bearhs, his travels and opinions, and his predictable political orientation.

Now, to be fair, the book is very carefully researched (though there are a few unexpected bloopers), well written, and quite engaging in style. It's all based on...
Published on May 29, 2010 by Robert J. Newell


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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Twain's Feast is Delicious, May 4, 2010
This review is from: Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens (Hardcover)
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The author, Andrew Beahrs, begins his book by recreating a favorite breakfast of Mark Twain's noted in the book A Tramp Abroad. Twain dreamed of the delicious food of his homeland as he traveled through Europe, disgusted with the cuisine he encountered - runny cream, tasteless chicken, half-rotted produce, etc. His fantasy breakfast included a two inch thick dry aged, grass fed porter house steak, hot biscuits with fresh butter, buckwheat cakes with transparent syrup (maple), and American home made coffee with cream. Reading Twain's written culinary daydreams prompted Beahrs to recreate, as closely as possible, the breakfast described in A Tramp Abroad, which led to a bigger project - this book. He enriched his reading of Twain's classic, ate some great food and in the process reminds all of us that fresh flavorful American food is, like jazz, something to be proud of.

This book is a study of Twain's appreciation of the quality of American food. Real food, not the fast food widely recognized as America's pathetic contribution to the culinary community. Almost in erotic terms we are treated to the delicious descriptions of a simple, but properly prepared "good homemade cup of American coffee." Coffee carefully brewed in a French press with water just below boiling. Letting the freshly ground coffee steep until dark and rich with a nice froth. Adding fresh unpasteurized cream that is so thick it is reluctant to leave its container.

What about a steak? Beahrs describes the difference in flavor between a grass fed and corn fed steak and the increased density of the dry aged meat. The Mark Twain breakfast was recreated carefully, securing foods identical or as close to the quality of product Twain would have had available in the late 1800's. Beahrs ordered the steak a week earlier from his butcher, secured fresh butter churned days before from a farmer's market, located almost impossible to find fresh unpasteurized cream at the outrageous price of almost $15 for a half pint, and on and on with each ingredient.

Each of the eight chapters provides the regional history of dishes listed on Twain's wish list. The chapters are laced with stories, in fact that is the heart of the book - storytelling. The author travels to Illinois to view Prairie Hens in the wild, making note of area's topography and the habits of the birds. He realizes he won't be able to taste a prairie hen but describes the meat from his research and includes numerous recipes (how to prepare guidelines) from hundred year old cookbooks. Chapter two examines raccoons and possum, Chapter three -- trout at Lake Tahoe, Chapter four -- oysters and mussels in San Francisco, Chapter five -- Philadelphia Terrapin, Chapter six - sheepshead and croakers from New Orleans, Chapter seven - Thanksgiving and Chapter eight - maple syrup. A wonderful epilogue and thorough section of notes along with a bibliography are also included.

My significant other greatly admires Samuel Clemens. Some years ago he asked that I prepare baked apples and cream - a request prompted by his reading of A Tramp Abroad. He'd never had a baked apple, and after tasting found the dish to be a revelation. The simple baked apple with cinnamon and sugar gracing the fruit, cream adding richness and the result -- nirvana. The dish is a good example of the premise of the book and the theory of eating regional foods, grown naturally and consumed at their peak.

Occasionally while reading, a subject becomes so interesting that it demands further exploration -- the addition of another dimension - like traveling to a part of the world, preparing a recipe, listening to music, watching a film or reading work by another author. The progression Beahrs explores feels logical and the urge to do it, natural. Although I have no intention of trying possum or raccoon, the book is engaging on many levels - food, history, storytelling and of course the work of Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens.
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars As Much About the Author as About Twain, May 29, 2010
This review is from: Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens (Hardcover)
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Twain's Feast is only partly about Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. A lot of the book is about Berkeley author Andrew Bearhs, his travels and opinions, and his predictable political orientation.

Now, to be fair, the book is very carefully researched (though there are a few unexpected bloopers), well written, and quite engaging in style. It's all based on some lines penned by Twain while in Europe, lamenting the state of European gastronomy, and listing a series of American dishes that he would have loved to assemble into one enormous, delicious (though not quite realistic) feast.

Author Beahrs writes a chapter on each of the major elements of the feast, tracing the food in question back to its roots, and highlighting the concept of fresh, seasonal, and regional ingredients. We learn about oysters, prairie hens, trout, and much more. The author visits the original American location where Twain would have encountered the food in question, and comments at length about what has happened since. This makes a large part of the book a lament about how things have gone downhill since "the good old days" and to a lesser extent, a plea for change and redress.

You'll certainly learn a lot by reading this book, and you'll be well enough entertained.

While an obvious Twain devotee, at times, though, the author forgets himself and shows unseemly disrespect. Near the end of the book, for instance, he's recounting his preparation of fried chicken as Twain might have enjoyed it. He quotes Twain as saying that "Yankees" can't make good fried chicken, and then follows this with "Stuff it, Twain!" And, as noted, more of the book than might be expected is filled with the author's personal opinions, family stories, all of which really detract from the real reason you'd want to read this book: to learn about Twain, and food, and Twain's ideas about food.

In summary, I'd call this book "good enough," and can recommend it both to Twain fans and food fans, but with some reservations. You'll enjoy much of the book, but you'll be quite annoyed with much of it, too.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I LOVED THIS BOOK !, May 6, 2010
This review is from: Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens (Hardcover)
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I loved this book !

It almost reminded me of the recent movie Julie and Julia !..........only in this case the author is following a very early foodie Mark Twain.Of course mark Twain was a very traveled person ---having eaten his way through France , England , Germany and other places as well. His 4 diamond plus to me was that even with eating all these other countries specialitys he still missed and prefered our Wild American Foods.

This is a story of an American --loving American Foods. Wild foods that are only available in certain portions of the country....Ducks , Prairie Chickens , trouts and oysters from San Francisco, California.

All of this goes along with recipes from the day....very basic and early recipes.I was really into this book...as I love the study of old foods and recipes.

If your into American History or/and foods from back in the day--you'll enjoy this
book greatly !
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In Praise of Local Foods, April 23, 2010
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This review is from: Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens (Hardcover)
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Twain's Feast by Andrew Beahrs is well-written and interesting. By looking at a list of Samuel Clemens's favorite foods and investigating the status of those animals and plants today, Beahrs makes a strong argument for the importance of local foods. There are chapters on prairie-hens, raccoons, trout, oysters, turtle, New Orleans, cranberries, and maple syrup.

The author quotes 18th and 19th century recipes for many of these foods, but the modern cook would have difficult recreating them given the vagueness of the directions and the lack of ingredients routinely used then that are no longer available. However the author does describe his method for cooking Thanksgiving turkeys and it sounds truly delicious.

Beahr's descriptions of his own cooking and that of others is frequently gripping and mouth-watering - with the major exceptions of the descriptions of muskrat, raccoon, and terrapin (turtle) which this reader found difficult to stomach.

Although I've read a lot about Samuel Clemens, I discovered new things about him in this book - did you know he started a forest fire (accidentally) at Lake Tahoe or surfed in Hawaii? Clemens and the author both emerge as interesting characters that you'd like to spend some time with - preferably at the dinner table.

With echoes of Pollan's "The Omnivores Dilemma," this book is both a fun and important addition to the books arguing for a return to local farming and foods. Recommended.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sometimes diet, sometimes diatribe, May 24, 2010
This review is from: Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens (Hardcover)
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This book was inspired by a fantasy menu of longed-for American food, compiled by Mark Twain during an extended European sojourn. Rather than address all 80-someodd items on the menu, the author focuses on eight, with occasional nods to some others. His literary mirepoix is made up of his own journey in search of these precious foodstuffs, glimpses into Twain's life, and a healthy dollop of Americana. Foodies, American history and trivia buffs, and Twain fans will all appreciate the book.

If you are looking for food porn (or, maybe, food erotica), you will be disappointed. While there are descriptions of some of the dishes from a gourmand's perspective, and even snippets from recipe books of the time, these are vastly overshadowed by a CSI-like train of associations. Prairie chicken leads us to prairie farming, then to self-cleaning plows, then to the prairie ecosystem, and so on. Dirges for ecosystem loss and European exploitation are liberally larded throughout (the author is from Berkeley, where Kumbaya is a verb, so I'm not terribly surprised). Some obvious though minor links are missed - the almost simultaneous development of an extended railroad system and the self cleaning plow is no coincidence from a metallurgist's perspective for example, and cattle wasn't only shipped from Chicago to New York, it was also butchered on the train itself. The discussion of post-Katrina NOLA is also poignantly pre-oil-spill (my sympathies to the author - it sucks to have your work be dated before it is even released).

The author's writing is engaging, with hints of P.J. O'Rourke and Dave Barry. Twain's advice to new writers was to "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be". This wasn't quite followed here, however, and the author's adjective-heavy prose is in sharp contrast to the snippets of Twain's own writing, scattered throughout the book. The problem is not uncommon with young writers, and not a dealbreaker.

As I write this, UC Berkeley has announced it will shortly be releasing Mark Twain's autobiography, held back for 100 years after his death as per his own instructions. I'm guessing there will be a resurgence of interest in Twain stuff. Perhaps the timing of this book is not such a coincidence.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mark Twain and some favorite foods, June 20, 2010
This review is from: Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens (Hardcover)
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In A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain covered a trip in Europe that he made with a friend in 1879. As part of the book, he composed a fantasy list of American dishes that he desperately missed while relying on European cooking. Lake trout from Tahoe, hot biscuits Southern style, canvasback duck from Baltimore, etc. In Twain's Feast, Mr. Beahrs has used Twain's list as a starting point and has explored eight regional dishes in depth to determine how they were prepared in the 19th century and whether it is still possible to end up with the same results today. Along the way we end up learning a great deal about Twain and the preparation of a number of foods.

We begin with prairie-hens from Illinois, move on to a raccoon festival in Arkansas, learn about the trout at Lake Tahoe as well as other unique dishes, and end up in New England learning about maple syrup. We also spend time in New Orleans reading about sheepshead and croakers. Mr. Beahrs' stories about Twain are interesting, and his food writing is particularly good.

I recommend the book both for anyone interested in Mark Twain and particularly for readers who love to read about food. I also found that reading this book has led me to go back and reread some of the famous Mark Twain books.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Oysters, canvasbacks and terrapins, oh my!, July 23, 2010
This review is from: Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens (Hardcover)
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Twain enjoyed the wild-crafted luxury foods that graced the opulent tables of pre-20th Century America. And he wrote about them enthusiastically and contrasted America's rugged but rich diet with the anemic fare of Europe. (My, how things have changed! We left the US for a short few years before 2002 and when we came back, we noticed how American food had become overprocessed and badly prepared. Restaurant food was clearly frozen food, reheated or--even left lukewarm. Nothing local or fresh unless you were at some expensive place, and even then, your chicken was likely to be undercooked and your steak microwaved.)

This book covers several wild foods that were fished or hunted to extinction, such as canvasback ducks. Even then, the canvasback, a savory bird nothing like domestic duck or even mallards, was getting scarce due to its prominence on the set menu at important dinner parties (Check out Edith Wharton's "Age of Innocence." May Archer serves canvasbacks at every dinner party. And the Archers entertained a lot.) Cheating in the form of red-headed ducks (also rare now) was common. Then Maryland terrapins were hunted to near extinction. I see those critters now on a daily basis as I cross the marshes to get to work; at low tide you can see them sunning themselves on rocks or logs. No one eats them anymore and the cans of "green turtle soup" we had in the last century are also gone. Turtles make a clear, rich broth akin to a deep veal stock but more delicate and flavorful. The meat of turtles is dark with myosin on the legs (for fast swimming and digging) but the body meat is light and rather like veal. Often, unlaid eggs are present in the females. Later, snapper was used to replace the Diamondbacks, but it is quite different and the traditional soup, which is a local delicacy around here along with muskrat and a tradition for hundreds of years, is not the same at all. And snappers seem to be prolific breeders and survivors, possible due to their nasty ability to defend themselves. The Chesapeake terrapin nearly went extinct and today it is still illegal to hunt them for food in many places. Part of the expense probably was the difficult preparation, covered in part in the book. Mock turtle soup was developed from calves' heads, replicating the gelatinous quality of the turtle meat.

As to oysters, one can only read about the "terroir" or local flavor of them and weep as we watch the destruction of the Gulf fisheries. While European oysters are richly flavored little morsels, the true Bluepoints of Long Island were the oyster of Twain's choice and now simply any Atlantic oyster. They are different than the fat, bland but toothsome Gulf oysters and now all of them are getting scarce.

The author points out how many foods were wildcrafted, that is to say not cultivated foods in Twain's time and that these foods are not sustainable as regular sources of table fare even with the smaller population of Twain's time. Couple the appetite of the Golden Age for luxury with the modern overfishing off our shores in international waters and the loss of cod and other species and you have a picture of poor stewardship. A very interesting book, though I thought the scope of it was a bit limited.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dinner at the Clemens residence, May 19, 2010
This review is from: Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens (Hardcover)
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I will read anything Twain-related, so when this book came up for review, I pounced on it. It wasn't quite what I expected, but I came away knowing a lot more than I did before, about a lot of things; food sources in the 1800s; Twain's views on a lot of things; and a nice overall view of the sort of life he led.

Andrew Beahrs, the author, has written for the National Geographic, and it shows. I felt that I had read an exhaustive treatment of the gustatory and itchy-footed life of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, with the emphasis centered around his love of food. On a tour of Europe, he bemoaned the state of hotel fare, saying, "There is here and there an American who will say he can remember rising from a European table d'hote perfectly satisfied. But we must not overlook the fact that there is also here and there an American who will lie." In a moment of fierce nostalgia for culinary items he could not get in Europe, he wrote up a menu of foodstuffs he longed for, including many that were, at best, regional even then, and many remain so today. It was these that Mr Beahrs set out to discover.

There were a few chapters dealing with items I have no desire to satisfy my curiosity about - raccoon and possum come to mind - but the author's rhapsodic take on Blue-Point and San Francisco oysters made me think that maybe I've been missing something. I've had a few experiences with raw oysters that I don't want to enlarge upon, but the fried variety started to sound pretty good with the progress of the chapter. Along the way, Mr Beahrs provides us with a well-researched and insightful history of the settling of the area and how food remained a central point of that settlement; this is also true in all the subsequent chapters. I wouldn't have believed there was so much to say about trout, terrapin, a fish called Sheepshead available in New Orleans, cranberries, or maple syrup, but he does them all justice. I became far more learned in the travels and adventures of Mark Twain, as well; Mr Beahrs presents him warts and all, and it is clear that he reveres the man and his works. He draws out a man, from youth to old age, as a person larger than life, who thoroughly enjoyed all his experiences, travels, and the people whom he met along the way.

This does not read like a novel; it was probably the wrong choice for me to take on the plane, and is not light reading; you will learn something, if you only read one chapter. Very well-thought-out, very well-done, this is a great source book for regional foods both then and now, and it covers environmental issues as well. Highly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Leave That 'Simmon Hanging on the Vine, April 18, 2011
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This review is from: Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens (Hardcover)
Who else but Mark Twain, hiding out in Europe after a speech intending humor but skewering the local literary gods, would have sent a 100 item plus list of foods for which he yearned---in case his admirers wished to offer a welcoming home banquet?

About 130 years later, in a happy hour was born the concept of discovering a lost culinary America by seeing what remained of Twain's wish list and how it had changed. The result is like the curate's egg: excellent in some places, whilst in others, not.

As two fer-instances of excellence, consider the quest for roasted possum, now available it seems only if one is or befriends a hunter and a chef or at the annual possum feast in a very small town in the south. There, our author experiences the defrosting of the stored (and gutted) possums, the boiling them into submission, the taking of possum meat from the bones, the preparation of the roasted, smoked, and stewed meat. While the stench (to some noses) may be off-putting and the taste less than toothsome, by dang it and by gum: we, the eager readers, can get closer to the older America and Twain himself. A chapter written with verve, overflowing with authenticity, a glorious adventure!

The expedition to maple sugaring, also resulting in a chapter to be read and re-read, began with speculation on why Twain specified "clear maple syrup" when certain of us prefer the luscious dark amber rather than the weak stuff sold today as clear. Through the woods the author goes, following the members of an authentic 100% natural maple syrup-ing family through the woods, through the tapping, exploring their new and old equipment, going every drop of the way with the syrup as Mark might have experienced it---through the filtering....Ah ha! Natural maple syrup prepared as it used to be had bits of grit, leaves, charcoal, twigs, and who knows what. Filtering made the syrup clear but left a glorious amber syrup. No wonder Mark specified "the clear." One reads of what accompanied this maple syrup, ready to pay whatever, go wherever to experience this still-with-us part of America.

Reading chapters such as these made a fine counter-point to reading Volume l of the just-published Twain autobiography, with echoes of Stephen Vincent Bennet's "...and all lost America shining in their eyes."

There are, however, some not-so-good chapters that read like left-over and re-warmed ideas from Michael Pollan's books and from M.L.K. Fischer's great work, "Consider the Oyster." Perhaps unhappily chosen, perhaps less enthusiastically field-researched, perhaps needing stronger editing or more time: whatever, not chapters I'll revisit.

This book is at its splendid best where the topics are original; at its not-best where other, perhaps better, foodies and historians have staked their claim. I am glad I bought this book, glad I read it, I am sharing it with others but it may be best appreciated with realistic expectations.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The lost bond between food and place, October 18, 2010
This review is from: Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens (Hardcover)
Andrew Beahrs mines two of my favorite topics, Mark Twain and food, to produce an appetizing and thought-provoking new book, Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens.

Appetizing because he seeks and finds some of Twain's (and my) favorite American foods in their places of origin: shrimp, trout and oysters; cranberries, maple syrup and more. Thought-provoking because it underscores how we have lost the "bond between food and place."

Beahrs uses Twain's dismissing of European food (when on his A Tramp Abroad excursion) and his compiling a lengthy list of superior American dishes as a springboard for his search for honest, local food. Sadly, it is not an easy task thanks to the corporatization of our food supply, the diminution of habitat for both comestible flora and fauna, and the degradation of the environment.

Contrary to the local, seasonal and naturally flavorful fare Twain enjoyed a mere hundred years ago, most of us today regularly consume dubious dishes, Beahrs points out, compiled of increasingly insipid ingredients shipped at great cost (both monetary and environmental) often from other countries and continents. The book underscored for me how rare the table of my childhood on Long Lake in Southern Illinois, when at times we dined solely on foods taken entirely from our small environs: fish we caught in the lake, rabbits we trapped in the cabbage patch, potatoes we dug from the garden, asparagus we cut from the ground, the corn, berries, beans and fruits we picked. Who does that today? Perhaps not even farm families.

That childhood introduction to fresh, local food entranced me. (My mother liked to recount the surprise and obvious pleasure I registered when she first fed me table food instead of jarred baby puree). It also created in me a lifelong lust for simply prepared fresh food that parallels Twain's. ("Lust" is the right word. Beahrs quotes Twain on his dinner at Lake Ponchatrain: "The chief dish was the renowned fish called the pompano, delicious as the less criminal forms of sin."

Beahrs quotes Twain extensively--a dangerous ploy for a writer, as Beahrs own functional prose pales beside it. But the reader benefits by hearing Twain in his own words on the beauties of place--Lake Tahoe and Louisiana, Missouri and the Mississippi--and the bounties that issued forth from them to his table.

Ultimately Beahrs' book left me nostalgic and saddened (as well as hungry). To read of Twain gorging on ripe tomatoes he discovers on a misguided turkey hunt and eating fried fish pulled fresh from the lake made me long for the simple yet formidable pleasures of my childhood when I did likewise. Yet it also educated me (for example, on the extensive influence of African cuisine and cooking methods on American fare, via kitchen slaves) and stimulated my thoughts on (and my appetite for) honest American food eaten in its own environment.
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