Sometimes the titles of cookbooks are so far out, they’re almost “in”. That’s a little tongue-in-cheek, I suppose. I have been thinking about far out cookbook titles for about a year, maybe ever since my penpal, Betsy, began sending some of them to me. Then, while surfing around in my WORD files, I discovered I had written about off-the-wall cookbooks back in 2011!
For now, I have three in front of me—not your everyday community cookbook of anything remotely like a JOY of Cooking or a Betty Crocker Cookbook. These books are something else.
TWAIN’S FEAST– Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens, by Andrew Beahrs – and
FAMOUS VEGETARIANS & THEIR FAVORITE RECIPES – Lives & Lore from Buddha to the Beatles, by Rynn Berry – and
THE WORDS WORTH EATING COOKBOOK by Jacquelyn G. Legg.
Curious? I hope so! Let’s start, then, with “TWAIN’S FEAST”. Published in June, 2010, to mark the 175th anniversary of Mark Twain’s birth and the centenary of his death. Food writer Andrew Beahrs embarked on providing a fresh look at America’s most beloved author through the foods and places he treasured most. It was a clever approach to writing about Twain—for what could be written about Mark Twain that hasn’t already been written? And how many fans of Mark Twain’s literature would know that he was a great champion of regional cuisine? I, who have collected regional cookbooks for over forty years, did not know this about Mark Twain.
Actually, I collected Twain’s books for my significant other, Bob, who passed away in September, 2011. I would have loved asking Bob “Did you know that in the winter of 1879, Mark Twain paused during a tour of Europe to compose a fantasy of American dishes he missed the most?” (Then, again, Bob probably would have replied, “Oh, yeah, he wrote that in “A TRAMP ABROAD” Bob unquestionably read far more than I did—and was very well read.
Twain’s menu, made up of some eighty regional specialties, was a love letter to American food—to fresh, seasonal, local flavors—in a time before railroads had dissolved the culinary lines between Hannibal, Missouri, and San Francisco: Lake Trout from Tahoe, Hot Biscuits, Southern Style. Canvasback-duck from Baltimore and Black-bass from the Mississippi. Twain was desperately sick of European hotel cooking when he created his fantasy menu.
When food writer Andrew Beahrs first read Twain’s menu in the classic work “A TRAMP ABROAD”, he saw that the dishes were regional in the truest sense of the word—all drawn fresh form grasslands, and waters.
In TWAIN’S FEAST, Andrew Beahrs skillfully weaves together elements of travelogue, literary biography and culinary history to discover whether these forgotten regional specialties can still be found on American tables. Beahrs also explores how Train’s foods were harvested and hunted and cooked, but also lets us know how these foods were remembered, longed for, and loved.
Each item on Twain’s menu is tied to an important moment in his life, from the New Orleans sheepshead he enjoyed as a young man on the Mississippi (ew,ew, sorry), to the maple syrup he savored during his final years in Connecticut.
Tracking Twain’s foods led Andrew Beahrs from the dwindling prairie of rural Illinois to a six-hundred-pound coon supper in Arkansas, to the biggest oyster reef in San Francisco Bay. Beahrs found pockets of places in the USA where Twain’s favorite foods still exist, or where intrepid farmers, fishermen and conservationists are trying to bring them back. In TWAIN’S FEAST, Beahrs reminds us of what we’ve lost as these wild foods have disappeared from our tables.
(It made me think of all the wild blackberries that grow in vast abundance in Oregon, still, today, but you’d have to be a native Oregonian to be aware of this and to know where to go to find them. I yearn to return to Oregon during berry season, to pick to my heart’s content—my friends have wild blackberries growing the length of their farmland property but stopped to also show me the abundance of blackberries growing along the Willamette River).
In the Introduction to TWAIN’S FEAST, Beahrs admits that, for his thirty-third birthday, he wanted breakfast with Mark Twain. He writes, “I’d been preparing for more than a week—reading Twain’s novels, digging through old cookbooks, shopping in half a dozen markers. Now a two-inch-thick dry-aged porterhouse rested on my kitchen counter in a nest of brown butcher paper.
Buck-wheat batter and a tray of biscuits waited for the oven; dark maple syrup warmed in a small saucepan…” In the living room, his wife had their three-year old son pinned down. Beside Beahrs was a deep, seasoned to black cast iron fryer heated over the highest possible flame…” (I have cast iron skillets such as these—some of mine are over fifty years old).
Twain writes of being homesick for home-grown foods, admitting he detested the food served up in his travels throughout Europe, from watery coffee to decayed strawberries to chicken as tasteless as paper. Andrew Beahrs set out to prepare those foods that Twain missed most, starting with breakfast, the meal Twain missed the greatest. “Wanting a steak as much as possible like those Twain enjoyed,” Beahrs writes, “I ordered a grass-fed, dry-aged porterhouse from a small local butcher….”
You will have to read “TWAIN’S FEAST” to learn the rest. This is not a cookbook, per se, although it contains recipes—and I briefly wondered where I would file the book. In the end I decided it belongs with my food reference collection.
To see a sample of the fantasy menu in Mark Twain’s handwriting, go to www.smithsonian.com and enter “Mark Twain’s fantasy menu”. What shows up is two pages of the fantasy menu, in Twain’s own handwriting.
Andrew Beahrs is the author of two novels, and his work has appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES, GASTRONOMICA, VIRGINIA QUARTERLY REVIEW, THE WRITER’S CHRONICLE, OCEAN MAGAZINE, FOOD HISTORY NEWS and LIVING BIRD. He received his M.A. in anthropology/archeology from the University of Virginia and his M.F.A. in fiction from Spalding University. He lives in California with his family.
TWAIN’S FEAST, Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the footsteps of Samuel Clemens, is available at 15 cents and up (to 86 copies) for a pre-owned copy or new soft cover for $10.99 from Amazon.com, (Original purchase price was $25.95).
Next is FAMOUS VEGETARIANS & Their favorite recipes, subtitled “Lives & Lore from Buddha to the Beatles”, by Rynn Berry. On the back of the book we learn “More than just a cookbook author, Rynn Berry is a literary detective and scholar adventurer (hmm, reminds me of Andrew Beahrs!). He is the first to have found and published the vegetable recipes favored by Leonardo da Vinci, which he translated from medieval Latin into English. He was also the first to have discovered vegetarian recipes for Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, which Ryann found had been written in Bronson’s wife Abigail’s handwritten recipe book (be still my heart! What wouldn’t I give to just SEE that handwritten recipe book?!)
Rynn Berry has worked similar feats of research for such vegetarian immortals as Pythagoras, Gautama the Buddha, Socrates, Jesus Christ, Plutarch, Percy Shelley, Tolstoy, Gandhi and George Bernard Shaw. Berry also collected recipes from such contemporary vegetarians as Paul and Linda McCartney although I seem to recall that Linda McCartney wrote a cookbook so maybe that wasn’t too difficult—but Jesus Christ?
And, for what it’s worth, I immediately went to Amazon.com and checked on Linda McCartney’s cookbook – make that plural; she wrote at least 5 cookbooks, several of which were vegetarian. In any case, the recipes collected by Berry were culled from cookbooks left behind or from the notes of family members or housekeepers. Older recipes were gleaned or carefully recreated from historical accounts. And the chapter dedicated to Jesus Christ is most fascinating; the author presents a strong case for Jesus being a vegetarian. Recipes featured include Barley and Lentils and Wheat, Mint and Parsley Salad.
Equally fascinating is the chapter dedicated to Leonardo Da Vinci, who was “born in the sleepy hamlet of Vinci, which is about a day’s journey by mule-cart from Florence, on April 15, 1452…” Included in the intriguing text is a recipe for Fried Figs and Beans and Chick Pea Soup.
As a child whose first own book was a copy of Little Women, given to me by my mother, I have collected all the film versions of Little Women and recently acquired a copy of a Louisa May Alcott biography. Anyone who has seen the various versions of Little Women, or read the novel (numerous times, in my case…when I was a child, if I had nothing new to read, I read my own books over and over again, until I could recite entire pages by heart), you know that the father of Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth is noticeably absent; he is off serving in a war and it was years before I realized that “the war” was the American Civil War. (American history was not my strong suit in high school; it became a beloved topic after I became an adult). Indeed, Rynn Berry writes “The life of Bronson Alcott has been largely overshadowed by the fame of his daughter, Louisa May Alcott, whose books LITTLE WOMEN and LITTLE MEN became classics of American literature. It would appear that he is mainly remembered for being Louisa May’s father, but Bronson Alcott certainly deserves a greater claim on our memory than that. After all, he was a pioneer in many fields. He was America’s first educational theorist, whose ideas on teaching and child-rearing anticipate those of Gessel and Dewey…he was a leading abolitionist …and one of America’s earliest proponents of animal rights and vegetarianism. For his love of learning and his narrow escape from illiteracy, he had his mother to thank. Because Bronson’s mother was denied the education she always wanted, she saw to it that Bronson had every opportunity within her pinched means to improve his mind. What follows is a fascinating, albeit brief, biography of Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott. Recipes include Fruitlands Apple Pan Dowdy and a recipe for Ginger Snaps, from Abigail Alcott’s handwritten collection.
Not a cookbook, although it contains recipes. Not a book to put on my shelf with celebrity cookbooks—this too, belongs, I think, with my collection of food reference books.
Amazon.com has copies of FAMOUS VEGETARIANS starting at $1.00 and up for paperback pre-owned copies and $29.74 for new.
THE WORDS WORTH EATING COOKBOOK, featuring over 500 recipes from the Words Worth Eating Collection is a thick spiral-bound cookbook compiled by Jacquelyn G. Legg.
In the introduction she writes, “The recipes in the WORDS WORTH EATING COOKBOOK have been collected over many years. They include recipes from the author’s own family recipe collections, treasured contributions from friends and prize-winning Words worth Eating recipes…”
Well, knock me over with a feather-baster* and call me cook, it turns out that the Words Worth Eating recipes were originally created in 1978 for Ukrop’s super markets in Richmond Virginia—recipes were printed on cards every week for many years (undoubtedly like the recipe cards I used to pick up in MY supermarkets all the time, and share with penpals)—these recipes make up the contents of the WORDS WORTH EATING cookbook. (Here I was, thinking that the collection had a much loftier background).
*apparently, feather-basters have completely disappeared from our culinary landscape. Are you kidding me? My grandmother used a feather-baster to baste her strudels with melted butter! I remember having a feather baster—my guess is that it was made with duck feathers. Sigh.
Jacqueline Legg was involved in the development of a cookbook titled VIRGINIA HOSPITALITY, a highly successful cookbook created by the Junior League of Hampton Roads, published in 1995 (and which, of course, I have). Shortly after the Junior League cookbook was published, Jacqueline Legg was asked to create a weekly recipe program for a family owned chain of supermarkets. In addition to the weekly recipes. Mrs. Legg developed two seafood cookbooks, a low cholesterol cookbook and a gift packet of TWO DOZEN DELECTABLE DESSERTS. After that, WORDS WORTH EATING COOKBOOK follows most traditional pathways. Still, you have to admit, the story is interesting. I still don’t know where it should be filed on my book shelves. **
Happy cookbook collecting! And much happier cooking in the kitchen!