Sunday, October 24, 2010

Twain’s Feast Revisited

Hot Springs, Arkansas
Christmas, 1875

While touring Europe with his family in 1878 and 1879, Mark Twain filled many notebooks for his travelogue A Tramp Abroad. Much of what he wrote during the sixteen-month journey was never published, including his comparisons of European and American homes and transportation. Fortunately, however, his observations about food made it into the final manuscript. Under the guise of having grown weary of the “monotonous variety of unstriking dishes” served in European hotels, Twain declared: “It has now been many months, at the present writing, since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one—a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive…”1 What followed was an iconic list of eighty American foods that somehow defined a national cuisine.

In his new book Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens, slow food advocate Andrew Beahrs uses Twain’s imaginary menu as a jumping off point to track down eight of the foods, and thereby draw our attention to the wild species that have all but vanished from American tables. For Beahrs, the menu represents an ideal: “Fresh. Local. Intimately tied to place.” But while it’s true that Twain experienced many of his favorite foods in their places of origin, it would be a mistake to cast him as a “proto-locavore,” espousing a philosophy of locally grown foods. Rather, Twain was a man of his generation—one of the first whose diet was not subject to strict geographical constraintsand he embraced this new freedom. By celebrating America’s expansive natural bounty, he was challenging the prevailing idea that everything European was better. The same theme that characterized his critique of European homes and transport (“With them it is all gilding and massiveness and state…”2) also applied to food. He saw American cuisine as a reflection of the nation’s straightforward character and a matter of pride. One way to understand Twain’s bill of fare—what it revealed about his country’s unpretentious, technology-driven culture—is to compare it to an actual menu of the period.

First, here is Twain’s “little bill of fare,” in full, taken from A Tramp Abroad (1880).

“Radishes. Baked apples with cream.
Fried oysters; stewed oysters. Frogs.
American coffee, with real cream.
American butter.
Porter-house steak.
Fried chicken, Southern style.
Saratoga potatoes.
Broiled chicken, American style.
Hot wheat-bread, Southern style.
Hot biscuits, Southern style.
Hot buckwheat cakes.
American toast. Clear maple syrup.
Virginia bacon, broiled.
Blue points, on the half shell.
Cherry-stone clams.
San Francisco mussels, steamed.
Oyster soup. Clam soup.
Philadelphia Ter[r]rapin soup.
Bacon and greens, Southern style.
Hominy. Boiled onions. Turnips.
Pumpkin. Squash. Asparagus.
Butter beans. Sweet potatoes.
Lettuce. Succotash. String beans.
Mashed potatoes. Catsup.
Boiled potatoes, in their skins.
New Potatoes, minus the skins.
Early rose potatoes, roasted in the ashes, Southern style, served hot.
Sliced tomatoes, with sugar or vinegar. Stewed tomatoes.
Green corn, cut from the ear and served with butter and pepper.
Oysters roasted in shell—Northern style.
Soft-shell crabs. Connecticut shad.
Baltimore perch.
Brook trout, from Sierra Nevada.
Lake trout, from Tahoe.
Sheep-head and croakers,
from New Orleans.
Black bass from the Mississippi.
American roast beef.
Roast turkey, Thanksgiving style.
Cranberry sauce. Celery.
Roast wild turkey. Woodcock.
Canvas-back-duck, from Baltimore.
Prairie hens, from Illinois.
Missouri partridges, broiled.
’Possum. Coon.
Boston bacon and beans.
Green corn, on the ear.
Hot corn-pone, with chitlings, Southern style.
Hot hoe-cakes, Southern style.
Hot egg-bread, Southern style.
Hot light-bread, Southern style.
Buttermilk. Iced sweet milk.
Apple dumplings, with real cream.
Apple pie. Apple fritters.
Apple puffs, Southern style.
Peach cobbler, Southern style.
Peach pie. American mince pie.
Pumpkin pie. Squash pie.
All sorts of American pastry.
Fresh American fruits of all sorts, including strawberries which are not to be doled out as if they were jewelry, but in a more liberal way.
Ice-water—not prepared in an effectual goblet, but in the sincere and capable refrigerator.”

Now, for the sake of comparison, have a look at the menu shown below from the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas. For its first Christmas dinner in 1875, the new 120-room resort pulled out all the stops, serving a large number of special dishes.3 Situated in the part of the country where Twain grew up, in neighboring Missouri, the hotel offers some of the same regional foods of his youth. In fact, the Arlington’s rural location (about 700 miles southwest of Chicago) prompted it to note the points of origin for many of the game dishes that it was able to procure, giving this menu a striking resemblance to Twain’s bill of fare.

It is surprising how similar the Arlington menu is considering that it was created for a real dinner, while Twain had utter literary license. He was free to include dishes for both breakfast and dinner on his menu and was not constrained by what could be obtained on a specific day in a given season. Below is a list of the similar dishes on the Arlington menu with the cities and states of origin shown in bold type:

Baltimore raw oysters.
Green sea turtle soup. Oyster soup.
Fried oysters. Escalloped oysters.
California salmon, boiled,
with sauce cardinal.
Mackinaw trout, baked, wine sauce.
Round of St. Louis spiced beef.
Byrne & Geary’s “X”mas beef.
“Magnolia” sugar cured hams,
with Champagne sauce.
Turkey, stuffed with chestnuts.
Saddle of Kentucky south down
mutton, with red currant jelly.
Legs and saddles of Arkansas venison,
with red current jelly.
Squirrels, broiled, a la maitre ďhotel.
Blue wing and mallard ducks,
with plum jelly.
Leg of Ouachita black bear, roasted,
with devil’s sauce.
Canvas back and red head ducks,
with green gage jelly.
Saddle of Nebraska antelope,
with cranberry sauce.
Wild turkeys, roasted.
Haunch of Kansas buffalo,
with Madeira sauce.
Mississippi o’possum, baked,
with sweet potatoes, Old Virginia style.
Tennessee coon, mustard sauce.
Young prairie grouse, roasted,
with cranberry jelly.
Illinois pheasants, broiled,
with steward’s sauce.
Wild goose, with quince jelly.
Texas jack rabbits, stewed, with bacon.
Ouachita River beavers, roasted,
with wine sauce.
Shaker corn. Stewed tomatoes.
String beans. Lima beans.4
Baked sweet potatoes. Fried parsnips.
New England pumpkin pie.
Mince pie. Fresh peach pie.
Fresh peaches with cream.
Green gages. Egg plums. Damsons.
Oranges in native wine.

Showing the source of the foods served a dual purpose. On one hand, dishes like the beaver and black bear from the Ouachita River watershed, and venison from Arkansas, reflected pride in the local game.5 However, there was also pride in being able to serve a wide variety of foods transported over long distances by rail.6 This is immediately evident by the Baltimore (Raw) Oysters proclaimed in large artistic type. The menu includes some perishable foods like California salmon and Mackinaw trout, and many interesting game dishes, such as Kansas buffalo, Nebraska antelope, and Texas jack rabbits.

This menu also expresses the novelty of being able to procure such a wide variety of foods in rural Arkansas. The introduction of the railroads in the 1840s profoundly affected people’s sense of time and space. At first, it was the change in personal mobility that was startling, but during the enormous expansion after the Civil War, it was the vast increase in freight traffic that changed perceptions.7 By the 1870s, refrigerated cars dramatically impacted food distribution, changing the concept of how many different foods could be included on one menu, even in the most isolated locations. The transformation must have been exhilarating, such as the moment when fresh oysters suddenly began to appear on menus throughout the country. New products were showing up all the time—Tobasco (sic) Red Pepper Sauce makes an early appearance on this menu.

Refrigerated Railroad Car (ca. 1870)
Rapid technological development can be a two-edged sword, and in this case, the railroads hastened the decline of the wild foods they were speeding to market. Some species were simply over-hunted, such as the buffalo in Kansas. The free-roaming buffalo completely vanished from the Great Plains by 1882. However, the habitat of the game was also being lost. The magnificent prairies of Illinois, which provided Twain's prairie hens, as well as the pheasants for the Arlington Hotel, quickly disappeared under a sea of corn.8

As a result, both menus include many archetypal foods that Americans no longer eat. Twain did not provide specific instructions as to where his coon and possum should be procured. He may have included these critters (presumably eaten in his youth) to amuse his readers as much as anything. However, in the Trans-Mississippi region, these were nostalgic foods that harkened back to the time when the settlers first cleared the land. The hunts continued for years afterward, evolving into something of a folk tradition. However, these foods were also reminiscent of life in the Old South. It is interesting that the Arlington menu notes that its raccoon came from Tennessee and its possum from Mississippi, especially since both were plentiful in Arkansas. The hotel was not making a gustatory distinction; the place of origin had a deeper meaning. By 1875, the hunting of these animals was almost the exclusive domain of former slaves, reminiscent of their years of bondage when they pursued them at night to provide meat for their families.9

Despite the similarities, there are also some big differences between these two menus. Twain used simple language like “Northern Style,” and more often “Southern Style,” to describe his most elaborate preparations. He also desired “all sorts of American pastries.” By comparison, the assortment of pastries on the Arlington menu is internationalGenoise cake, Russian biscuits, Chinese pears, Mecca loaves, and English macaroons. In fact, English food was the basis of restaurant and hotel fare in America at this time, as reflected by the Leicestershire pork pot pie and English plum pudding. There are no English dishes on Twain’s menu.

The absence of French on Twain's bill of fare is also revealing. French was used extensively on the menus of luxury establishments in the nineteenth century. The Arlington Hotel served a number of dishes with names like pate de foie gros (sic) à la Strasbourg and gigot d’agneau à la Provencale. Some of the English dishes are described in a mixture of English and French, such as mayonaise of chicken à la Anglaise. The English and French influence is neatly summarized by the beverages—English breakfast tea and coffee à la Francaise.

Twain, by contrast, concludes with the quintessential American beverage—ice water from “the sincere and capable refrigerator.” (Even the new technology reflected American attributes.)

Having made his point, Twain ended his menu on a philosophical note, “Foreigners cannot enjoy our food, I suppose, any more than we can enjoy theirs. It is not strange; for tastes are made, not born. I might not glorify my bill of fare until I was tired; but after all, the Scotchman would shake his head and say, ‘Where’s my haggis?’ and the Fijian would sigh and say, ‘Where’s my missionary?’” 

1. Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, New York (1880). 
3. Already the largest hotel in the state, the Arlington added 100 rooms in 1880. The building was torn down in 1893 to make way for a 300-room Spanish Renaissance hotel which burned down in 1923. It was replaced with the 560-room hotel still in operation.
4. Lima beans, a food of Andean and Mesoamerican origin, were one of foods that Twain dropped from the original list in his notebook. 
5. The Ouachita River runs 605 miles south and east through Arkansas and Louisiana, joining the Red River just before it enters the Mississippi River.
6. Menus for the annual game dinners held at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Chicago during this period did not indicate the origin of the game for several possible reasons. The large quantities of game needed for these dinners often required sourcing from multiple locations. It was also less of a logistical feat to procure a wide variety of game in Chicago during the late 1870s. (Ref: The Annual Game Dinner, 4 March 2010.)
7. After the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the mileage of track in operation in the U.S. exploded from about 53,000 miles in 1870 to over 163,000 miles in 1890. By that time, goods were being shipped directly to rural households from newly-established mail order houses, such as Sears, Roebuck, and Co. in Chicago, which published its first mail order catalog in 1888. The railroads peaked in 1916 with 254,000 miles of track.
8. Andrew Beahrs, Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens, New York (2010).
9. Ibid.


lostpastremembered said...

Great and thoughtful post... fascinating stuff. When foreigners came here they were in awe of the variety... but not so much the presentation. Twain, ever wise, knew this to be true. Of course the missionary line is pure Twain humor!

andrea broomfield said...

I learned so much from reading--and writing down for my own record--Twain's list. It recalled for me several of the State Dinner menus created for Rutherford B. Hays when he was US President. It helped me make interesting connections between Frederick Douglass Opie's _Hog and Hominy: Soul Food From Africa to America_ that I am currently reading. Igbo and Mande Africans fried chicken and guinea hens in palm oil to celebrate special occassions. When they arrived as slaves in the Carolinas and elsewhere in the South, they immediately continued the practice, albeit with lard. I am now inspired to determine what Twain means by "southern style" for all those various breads he listed, as well as some of the other foods. Thanks!!