Possum, Anyone?

Possum, Anyone?

Possum, Anyone?

Slate's guide to consuming culture.
July 2 2010 11:57 AM

Possum, Anyone?

Most July 4 menus are meant to be quintessentially American: hot dogs, potato salad, maybe a flag cake if you’re lucky.   But a new book, Andrew Beahrs’ Twain’s Feast , sets out to rediscover the foods that Mark Twain, writing with a homesick palate from Europe in 1879, listed as the ones he’d scarf down the minute his steamer docked in the States. More than 80 items long, his menu includes things like Illinois prarie-hens, blue points on the half-shell, sliced tomatoes with sugar or vinegar, hot hoe cake (Southern-style), even possum and raccoon. Many of Twain’s dishes contain regional specifications—San Francisco mussels, Virginia bacon, Philadelphia terrapin soup—so Beahrs crisscrosses the country to track them down, weaving into the travelogue notes on American dietary history. Twain is framed as a sort of patron saint of locavores, and Beahrs’ Berkeley-boho veneration of the locally sourced, down-home lifestyle can occasionally become a tad cloying. But he’s mostly saved by wit and observational power, those most Twainian of traits. Besides, even the man himself wasn’t always a virtuous rustic—at one dinner, Beahrs regretfully reports, Twain supped on "creamed asparagus, creamed sweetbreads … the tomatoes molded into jelly, with mayonnaise on the side (afterward came ice cream sculpted into flowers)." So if raccoons are unavailable, raise a scoop of vanilla in Twain’s honor this weekend.

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Noreen Malone is a senior editor at New York magazine.