Wednesday 19 March 2014

Maple bacon popcorn for Twain's Feast: cook the books

"In the winter of 1879, Mark Twain paused during a tour of Europe to compose a fantasy menu of the American dishes he missed the most. He was desperately sick of European hotel cooking, and his menu, made up of some eighty regional specialties, was a true love letter to American food...

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
Corn, maple syrup and bacon. These added up to a completely indulgent snack.

Maple Bacon Popcorn

3 rashers streaky bacon
2tbs maple syrup
1tbs vegetable oil
100g popping corn
1/2tsp hot pimenton or chilli flakes (optional)
1/2tsp salt
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.


kymber said...

this recipe is awesome! and being canadian - i can add a little to it. cook the popcorn in leftover bacon grease!!! i know, it's crazy!

but anytime that you make bacon, strain the grease over a small jar using a folded piece of paper towel. keep the little jar in the fridge - the bacon grease keeps forever! and then when you are making popcorn, stir fries, green beans, any veg - whatever - use the bacon grease. every home in the east coast of canada has saved bacon grease in the fridge!

once again - your recipe for the popcorn is lovely. i can't wait to try it!

Joanne said...

Sounds like a super tasty treat!

Alicia Foodycat said...

Kymber - I don't keep a jar of it, but I do sometimes use my bacon grease for cooking. It gives so much flavour!

Joanne - I think it'd be lovely even without the bacon. The maple butter caramel was very successful!

Rachel said...

Your book commentary was very interesting and very astute. Twain does seem to be a fascinating person and I was glad to read this book instead of the massive volumes of autobiography that his will just allowed to be published on the centenary of Twain's death.

grace said...

i like sweet and salty popcorn but i've never used these two particular ingredients to achieve that. fantastic!

Bettina Douglas said...

that bacon is calling to me...

Barbara said...

My mother always kept a jar of bacon grease in the fridge. I rarely cook bacon anymore unless family is here, but admit I love it.
Your maple bacon infused popcorn sounds (and looks) delicious!

Jenny @ BAKE said...

This popcorn sounds delicious! You've combined my favourite breakfast with my favourite snack! I love the idea of the cook the books club I am going to have to join (though I am more than a little intimidated by this entry!)

Alicia Foodycat said...

Rachel - that is interesting! I hadn't heard about the autobiography.

Grace - I'm a recent convert to sweet & salty popcorn!

Mother - it's delicious.

Barbara - I think it is something better avoided except as a treat!

Jenny - do join! It's pretty relaxed, really.

Claudia said...

That treat sounds devastatingly addictive. I want some right now!

Camilla M. Mann said...

Wow! Decadent goodness. I like bacon and I like popcorn, but I would never have thought to mix the two together. Fun post for Cook the Book. Thanks for sharing.

Deb in Hawaii said...

Great post. I am such a fan of flavored popcorn. I would suspend my 'no-meat' eating for this tasty treat. ;-) Love the sweet and salty contrasts. There's a popcorn place in town here that does a 'loaded baked potato' popcorn and a chocolate and bacon one but I think your bacon combination outdoes them with the maple syrup and kiss of chili.

Simona Carini said...

Beautiful post, Alicia. I am glad you enjoyed the book. It certainly presents a multi-faceted Twain, an author I also met first on the pages of Huck Finn. It is very sad that corn has acquired a negative connotation. The Three Sisters, corn, beans and squash grown together, are an ingenious and elegant legacy of Native American culture. Finally, I like how you brought together various elements into your recipe. Thank you so much for your contribution to Cook the Books.

AM Nichols said...

Yes we Americans are obsessed with bacon. We even put it in desserts, cover it in chocolate and put it in vodka. I use the leftover grease, which I keep in a jar in the freezer, to cook up cabbage. It's really delicious. I even have a friend who has an annual bacon party. I won a trophy one year for making my own bacon. I smoked it in bourbon. I'm very proud of that trophy, too!

Debra Eliotseats said...

Excellent post. I know for certain that Twain would have gobbled this up and would have added this dish to his homesick list. (Great idea posted in comments about using bacon fat to pop corn!!!!!!)


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