When food writer Andrew Beahrs first read Twain's menu in the classic work A Tramp Abroad, he noticed the dishes were regional in the truest sense of the word-drawn fresh from grasslands, woods, and waters... In Twain's Feast, Beahrs sets out to discover whether eight of these forgotten regional specialties can still be found on American tables, tracing Twain's footsteps as he goes."
Twain's Feast, this month's Cook the Books Club selection (this round hosted by Simona at Briciole) was not what I expected. I was vaguely aware of Samuel Clemens, but back when I studied Huckleberry Finn at school, we didn't go in for authorial intent so we never really looked at the lives of the authors. I thought of him as a wild-haired steamboat captain and never thought beyond that. The picture that emerges of him through this book is much more complex and bittersweet. A man with a passion for adventure and a huge capacity for joie de vivre, he also experienced bouts of depression and times of extraordinary grief and loss.
The fantasy menu that inspired Beahrs was more about how Clemens had felt eating those foods than the specific foods themselves, calling back wistfully to times and places when he was happy (and not living in cheap European hotels). Beahrs' exploration of those foods also tends to the wistful, with a side dish of Big Yellow Taxi. Wanton destruction of the environment, animals driven close to extinction and a lack of respect for natural resources emerge again and again as he traces what has become of those delicacies. He shows the devastating impact of white settlement on North America as a death march of deforestation, erosion and the exceptionally short-sighted civil projects of the Corps of Engineers.
It isn't all bad news, fortunately. Along the way Beahrs meets with several Native American groups who are working to rehabilitate or maintain their ancestral lands and educate others about the environment. He talks to farmers, environmentalists and fishermen trying to restore species. He also strives to pass on his own appreciation for the natural environment to his son, giving some hope for the next generation.
The most interesting part of the book for me, aside from Twain's own lyrical descriptions, were the investigations of the history of some of the foodstuffs. As an anthropologist, Beahrs seems most comfortable exploring the cultural milieu Twain was writing in. I'd never really appreciated the role African slave cooks played in creating what we now think of as Southern food, or the difference between the first Thanksgiving/harvest celebrations and what I now see on food blogs in November.
I wanted to make something from corn. One of the foods white settlers were introduced to by the Native Americans, it has also been the cause of massive losses of topsoil and polluted waterways. It has been suggested that growing corn, particularly for biofuels, is contributing to climate change. And the infiltration of corn into all parts of the modern American diet has been connected to the rise of obesity and type 2 diabetes. So that's nice. I did contemplate making cornbread, but since Twain was so scathing of Northern attempts (and I do identify as Northern, even though I was raised further South than he would have imagined) I thought it was better not.
I also wanted to use maple syrup. Another food indigenous to North America and, apparently, one of the few mostly wild foods still popularly consumed. It was championed by abolitionists who were unwilling to eat sugar produced by slaves in the Caribbean. And it's something that I find absolutely magic - the notion of going out into a snowy wood, holding a bucket up to a tree and collecting sap, then boiling it to rich, sticky syrup is so amazing to me. The fact that Beahrs' nursery school had its own little sugaring shack was beyond astounding.
And, of course, bacon. After all, it is the internet. Plus I have noticed that bacon is something that Americans abroad really miss.
|Maple candied bacon|
Maple Bacon Popcorn
3 rashers streaky bacon
2tbs maple syrup
1tbs vegetable oil
100g popping corn
1/2tsp hot pimenton or chilli flakes (optional)
30g salted butter
75ml maple syrup, extra
Preheat oven to 200C. Line a tray with baking parchment. Place the bacon on the lined tray and drizzle with the maple syrup. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until completely crisp and caramelised. Remove the bacon from the tray and cool completely on a plate.
Heat the oil in a large saucepan with a lid, and add the popping corn. Cover, and shake until the corn has popped, then pour into a large, heat-proof bowl, holding back any unpopped kernels if possible. Sprinkle with the salt and pimenton. Crumble the slices of caramelised bacon over the top and give a little shake to distribute.
Shut children and pets out of the kitchen and ignore the telephone. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the butter and maple syrup over a medium heat, and swirl gently as it comes to the boil. Boil rapidly for a couple of minutes, or until it starts to change colour to a darker brown. Keeping your fingers well clear of it, pour the maple caramel quickly over the popcorn, using a silicon spatula to stir it through. It won't coat all of the popcorn, but try to get a fairly even distribution before it cools and sets. Eat in sweet, salty, spicy handfuls.