Novelist and food writer Andrew Beahrs is certainly a polymath. In Twain’s Feast, Beahrs—who has an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology as well as an M.F.A. in creative writing—writes eruditely about subjects as diverse as Mark Twain’s biography, the ecology of the Mississippi delta, the history of the Wampanoags of Massachusetts and a lot of food. Inspired by an imaginary menu Twain wrote while homesick for American cuisine on a European trip, Beahrs investigates a wide array of distinctly American foodstuffs, some “lost” (terrapin, prairie hens), others endangered (native Western trout, the products of Louisiana’s magnificent fisheries) and others, like cranberries and maple syrup, that are still robustly produced, much as they were in Twain’s day.
Twain’s Feast is loosely organized as a travelogue of important places in Twain’s life and the local foods he held dear, but Beahrs’ real aim is to argue for the value of local and wild foods, along with the importance of maintaining the ecological balance necessary for them to flourish. While eloquently explaining the demise of the prairie ecosystem as a consequence of large-scale industrial agriculture, or the efforts of the Fish and Wildlife Service to restore the cutthroat trout in the Sierra Nevada, Beahrs at once laments the loss of much of our national bounty and celebrates the efforts of those who seek to preserve what they can. Interspersing episodes from Twain’s life and travels with contemporary recipes and a wealth of historical information about the food production and eating habits of 19th-century America, Beahrs posits that the current foodie mantra of “fresh, local and sustainable” is in fact the hallmark of our culinary tradition and was a cherished part of Twain’s national identity.
While his arguments can sometimes be repetitive, Beahrs’ wealth of interesting stories make for a pleasurable read. Twain’s Feast is an enjoyable and informative book that will be welcomed by anyone interested in America’s culinary and cultural heritage.