I almost missed the best blackberries I ever tasted, maybe the best berries I ever ate, maybe the best berries that have ever passed the lips of anyone in the history of the planet. I was driving back to New York from San Diego via Route 90, hitting all the northern states with...let's call him "The Mathematician." The trip wasn’t going well because the relationship wasn’t going well, and anyone who has endured the folly of a cross-country trip with someone even moderately annoying, let alone a soon-to-be-ex, knows just how deep this rung of hell lies.
We were passing through the multi-landscaped, semi-primordial wonder of Oregon, and either fighting or not talking to one another when I yelled “Stop the car!!!” The Mathematician probably thought I was having a tantrum, or displaying “one of my moods,” but in actuality I had spotted, or thought I had spotted wild blackberry bushes by the side of the road. The first one I tasted was like a hit of black gold, their sweetness warmed and intensified by the late summer sun, each perfect little chamber bursting like a tangy-juicy firecracker in my mouth. They were intoxicating, and we spent the next hour eating as many as we could and filling every empty container we could find, and enjoying probably the only moments of shared happiness that entire journey. Those berries carried me through to New York, and no blackberry will ever live up to them, certainly not the sour, almost crunchy supermarket variety.
I’ve been trying to write this post for a while, but in all honesty haven’t mustered it because the book I’m going to tell you about is really, really good and I want to try and do it justice. Andrew Beahrs's Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens, uses as a springboard a fantasy menu of the American foods Twain yearned for while on a yearlong tour for A Tramp Abroad, sick to death of the European Hotel food which he found insipid and pretentious. Here are a few of the regional specialties he craved:
- Blue points, on the half shell
- Bacon and greens, Southern style
- Hominy and succotash
- Brook trout, from Tahoe
- Black bass from the Mississippi
- Roast wild turkey
The book weaves together Twain’s connection to eight of these favorites, ones that marked cherished moments throughout his life, with Beahrs’s own experiences as he observes and works besides the men and women, farmers, conservationists, and historians who are dedicated to keeping what remains of these disappearing local foods alive. It’s a complex premise, but well worth the journey, and fittingly Beahrs’s strong, often arch voice comes to the fore; there’s the sense that he and Twain are matching wits across Time’s table as the author traces the subject’s footsteps, bonded through a mutual love of food and words.
Turns out Twain was a slow food kinda guy, using words like “honest” and “real” even at a time when refrigeration used blocks of ice, and cheap rail and freeway transport wasn’t omnipresent, so almost all food was local, and none of it was raised through industrial farming. He was fortunate enough to live during the unique moment in American history when it was still possible to combine the notions of wild and metropolitan: San Francisco mussels, Sheep-head and croakers from New Orleans, Canvas-back-duck from Baltimore, all made the list. Sometimes the memory of a fantastic meal has more to do with the enjoyment of gathering, hunting, growing, catching, or procuring it than anything else. Twain’s list was carved from the happy times throughout his life that he spent outdoors, and is an exuberant love letter to the flavor of the American landscape. I’m really happy Beahrs went all in for this book, and while he sat in a frigid pre-dawn shack watching the courting ritual of some of the last prairie chickens on earth, I’m pretty sure he was, too. The 600 pound Arkansas coon supper, maybe less so.
Do you have memories of wild foods eaten outdoors? Are any of those foods close to disappearing?
Although Carolyn Grifel has been cooking, baking, and devouring cookbooks since she was old enough to read, it took her four decades to finally devote herself to professional cooking. She received a degree from The French Culinary Institute in 2009, while working at Epicurious.com. Since graduating she’s been a chef for Sweet Deliverance, as well as the executive chef at the historic TA Ranch in Buffalo, Wyoming. She’s currently a private chef for a family of five in NYC, and the enchanted mother of a 10-year-old named Stella.