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July 27, 2010

Book Notes - Andrew Beahrs ("Twain's Feast")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

I loved Andrew Beahr's new book, Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens for many reasons. I am probably the target audience for this book: a lifelong fan of Mark Twain, an inveterate foodie, and a local food enthusiast. The book recreates eight dishes Twain listed in A Tramp Abroad while traveling in Europe and missing American food.

I expected to enjoy this book, but was truly fascinated not only by Beahr's exploration of Twain's magnificent food writing, but also his examination of how (and why) America's diet has changed over the years.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Twain's inventory sets Beahrs on a quest to rediscover American cuisine. He prepares grass-fed steak for breakfast. In New Orleans he discovers how much human taming of the Mississippi has changed local agriculture and foodways. He culls recipes from nineteenth-century cookbooks to determine what manner of American victuals Twain might have actually consumed. Beahrs laments recent years' industrialization of agriculture, yet his survey is equally an indictment of the timorous vapidity of present-day taste."

In his own words, here is Andrew Beahrs's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens:

Twain's Feast is about Mark Twain's favorite wild foods, but it's also about where he tasted them—and how both the foods and the places they came from have changed since then. In this playlist, I've chosen songs that recall the places Twain knew and loved throughout his life, from his boyhood on the prairie to last, lonely years in New England.

It Makes Me Cry to Think of Them: Prairie-Chickens, from Illinois

"Gabriel's Oboe." Ennio Moriconne
"Feels Like Summer," Al Green

Many of Twain's favorite childhood memories were of his Uncle John Quarles's prairie farm in Missouri, which he visited often until he was about thirteen. He remembered the opulent Southern meals there, and also the emptiness of the tallgrass prairie; at dawn, in the early spring, prairie-chickens could be heard "booming" their unforgettable calls from mating grounds throughout the grass. Twain sometimes hunted them, along with squirrel and wild turkey—his small contribution to the farmhouse meals.

"Garbriel's Oboe," from the soundtrack to The Mission may seem a strange choice to open the playlist, but it shares the character of Twain's prairie—it's an expansive song, haunting and lovely. "Feels Like Summer" is equally lovely, but gentler and warmer, appropriate for a place he saw as fascinatingly vast and also as a second home. And both songs make me think of dawn.

A Barrel of Odds and Ends: Possum and Raccoon

"1B." Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O'Connor

This chapter gave was a chance to explore some of the cultural blendings that Twain loved—in this case, the way that different cultures (especially those with African roots) combined to create Southern cooking, including game like possum and raccoon. While researching the book I ate raccoon at a supper in Gillett, Arkansas, where the meat was served to about a thousand people in the high school auditorium. Though Gillett is closer to the Ozarks than to Appalachia, Yo-Yo Ma has never been afraid to explore new paths for his music, and his foray into the traditions of the Mountain South seems appropriate. It's a beautiful song.

Masterpiece of the Universe: Trout at Lake Tahoe

"How Will You Shine," The Gourds
"Friend of the Devil," Grateful Dead

Twain came to Lake Tahoe in 1861, having run west to escape the draft agents of the Civil War (as a steamboat pilot, he'd have been a valuable recruit). Twain's descriptions of Tahoe are among his most evocative writing; while there he fished for gigantic Lahontan cutthroat trout (the lake's record was 31 pounds), which he ate, simply fried in bacon fat, on the shore. Though he'd never have chosen to leave the Mississippi on his own, he made necessity into a virtue, and his book about his western experiences, Roughing It, was one of the great early, ebullient American road books.

For this chapter I wanted songs that caught some of the sense of release and exploration Twain felt upon being unexpectedly cut off from his old piloting career and careening off towards the desert and mountains. The Gourds have been described as "music for the unwashed and well-read," which describes Twain at this point in his life perfectly. "Friend of the Devil," meanwhile, is one great roadtrip tunes; the fact that the first line is "I lit out from Reno," not far from Twain's Nevada haunts (and very close to the Pyramid Lake Paiute reservation, home of one of the most important Lahontan cutthroat hatcheries) is just a bonus.

Heaven on the Half Shell: Oysters and Mussels in San Francisco

"Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," Duke Ellington

I'm thinking here specifically of the live track, off of "Ellington at Newport." It opens with Ellington announcing that the song will be marked by an interval by Paul Gonsalves, who turns in one of the all-time great solos, spinning out a driving succession of variations until he's nearly lost under the screaming crowd. It still stops me flat, and recalls what Twain was doing in San Francisco—working towards something distinctively his own yet immediately recognizable, and finally revealing a vital American voice.

Dinner was Leisurely Served: Philadelphia Terrapin

"Walking Spanish Down the Hall," Tom Waits

In 1878, Twain gave an after-dinner speech that insulted some of America's best-known writers, including Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes. He was so embarrassed by the response that he took his whole family to Europe, where he eventually wrote the fantasy menu that Twain's Feast is based on. For that reason I think of the menu as a defiant act—a way of showing that plain, simple flavors were as praiseworthy as upscale dining—and I wanted a song recalled that strutting rebelliousness.

The Most Absorbing Story in the World: Sheep-head and Croakers, from New Orleans

"Pop's Dilemma/ Irene Goodnight," James Booker

I haven't been picking songs with too much local relevance, but writing about New Orleans and not choosing a song from there would be wrong. So: a two-song medley from the great pianist James Booker. After returning from Europe Twain returned to the Mississippi to write about his memories of the river, and was shocked to see the changes dams and levees had made there. He'd eaten sheepshead and croaker (both humble fish) as a young pilot in New Orleans, but now realized how utterly the waterscape he knew best had left him behind, and how completely his home was now Hartford. He loved his family, but it was a painful moment, and it's what I think of when Booker sings the lines "Last Saturday night I got married/me and my wife settled down…sometimes I live in the country/sometimes I live in the town./Sometimes I take a great notion/to jump in the river and drown."

It is MY Thanksgiving Day: Cranberries

"Kakokolo," Samite of Uganda
"One of These Days," Neil Young

"Kakokolo" is one of the warmest songs I know; it's among the first music I played to my children when they were born. But there's also a yearning in its sweetness, a sense of things passing. That same sense is there in "One of These Days," with Neil Young singing, with want and hopelessness, of passing time and the way it's taken friends he knows, down deep, that he'll never see again. Twain was happy in Hartford, but also felt the passage of time and its inevitable losses very strongly. I think many of us know that sense of foreboding even in good times—that knowledge of things passing away—and, for me, these songs capture that.

Twilight: Maple Syrup

"Just a Closer Walk With Thee," Ella Fitzgerald
"Dark was the Night," Blind Willie Johnson

Twain endured enormous pain late in life, losing two daughters and his wife along with his home. He'd always found comfort in spirituals, singing along as he played the piano, and I've included "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," as a song of solace. It's also the only one here that Twain might have known and sung.

"Dark was the Night" has a different resonance; as full of pain as anything I've heard, it's one of the songs included on the Golden Record carried by the Voyager spacecraft on its travels beyond the solar system. In his final years Twain talked about the return of Halley's Comet, and how he and the comet would go out together, two "unaccountable freaks" heading away from the world. When I hear this song I can't help but think of the journey Twain imagined he might take, even if he had no notion of what it was towards.

"Reason to Believe," Bruce Springsteen

This last song is more about me than Twain—or, more exactly, it's upon my mood upon finishing writing. I was moved by Twain's losses, and by the changes to America he saw and lived through. Still, I ended more hopeful than I'd begun, having met dozens of people working to restore and protect some of our country's best, most distinctive places, and usually doing so simply because they loved them. In a way, to be hopeful you have to acknowledge the forces that can steal your hope, something that Springsteen's "Reason to Believe," does brilliantly.

Andrew Beahrs and Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens links:

the author's website
purchase a signed copy of the book

Booklist review
Bookviews by Alan Caruba review
Farmbrarian review
Financial Times review
Library Journal review
SF Local Foods review
Slate review
Village Voice review
Willamette Week review

The Atlantic essay by the author
East Bay Express profile of the author
New York Times op-ed piece by the author
Penguin interview with the author
St. Louis Post-Dispatch profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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