I bought this book last summer at my Berkshire Indie store, The Bookstore in Lenox, but didn't have the time to read it until now and am blown away.
Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens by Andrew Beahrs is a book for Mark Twain lovers, foodies, and people interested in ecology and environment, and very entertainingly written indeed.
Based on the homesick food list in Mark Twain's "A Tramp Abroad," the author explores nine of those foods in individual chapters, from Porterhouse steak breakfast (For my 38th birthday, I wanted breakfast with Mark Twain) with biscuits and buckwheat cakes with syrup (The Introduction), to Prairie Chicken and finally to Maple syrup again.
In each chapter, he follows Mark Twain through his life and travels, discusses the food, with 19th century recipes in boxes, and often writes about recreations by either himself or others. He goes to a strip of restored prairie in Illinois to watch Prairie chickens booming before mating, goes (hilariously) to the annual Coon Supper in Gillett, Arkansas, and travels the entire country from Lake Tahoe (trout, what else) to San Francisco (oysters and mussels) to New Orleans (sheep-head and croakers), to Maryland (Philadelphia Terrapin), Cape Cod (cranberries and the history of Thanksgiving) and more, and ends up in his native Connecticut for the making of Maple syrup.
All this is interspersed with explorations how the land and the food have been changed by the 19th and 20th century population growth and industrial development, and visits to preservationists, organic farmers, and more. And he warns:
Substituting one wild food for another is just one way of breaking the bonds between food and place, one step on the road from eating backyard chicken on Sunday to the KFC Double Down Sandwich (currently being test-marketed and consisting, as God is my witness, of bacon, two kinds of cheese, and special sauce between two fried chicken breasts). Wild foods have natural, undeniable terroir. Eating them is an opportunity one that's too often missed – to think about a piece of the world: its tides, its winds, its land, its limits. But substitution does exactly the opposite. It creates an Illusion of eternal plenty, blinding eaters to how their choices shape the world.
If you still need a Christmas present, this is it!