Just three years after publishing “Tom Sawyer,” Mark Twain’s celebrity was world-renowned. In the late fall of 1879, after months of traveling and speaking throughout Europe, a lonely and homesick Mark Twain sat in an Italian hotel room and composed a fanciful personal feast of 80 favorite dishes to assuage his longing for plain old American comfort food, bounteously derived from the verdant land and waters of the new world.
Twain’s imagined all-American Thanksgiving banquet follows:
“It has now been many months, at the present writing, since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one — a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive — as follows:
“Radishes, baked apples with cream, fried oysters, stewed oysters, frogs, American coffee with real cream, American butter, fried chicken — Southern-style, Porter-house steak, Saratoga potatoes, broiled chicken — American style, hot biscuits — Southern-style, hot wheat-bread — Southern-style, hot buckwheat cakes, American toast, clear maple syrup, Virginia bacon — broiled, Blue Points on the half shell, cherry-stone clams, San Francisco mussels — steamed, oyster soup, clam soup, Philadelphia terrapin soup, oysters roasted in shell — Northern-style, soft-shell crabs, Connecticut shad, Baltimore perch, brook trout from Sierra Nevadas, lake trout from Tahoe, sheephead and croakers from New Orleans, black bass from the Mississippi, American roast beef, roast turkey — Thanksgiving style, cranberry sauce, celery, roast wild turkey, woodcock, canvasback duck from Baltimore, prairie hens from Illinois, Missouri partridges, broiled possum, coon, Boston bacon and beans.”
Twain’s menu provides a fascinating perspective on the diverse selection of natural and wild foods common to his time. His choices of wild game, fish, mollusks and shellfish span the length and breadth of the America he knew and those delights were readily available on a localized basis in markets from New York to San Francisco and from the Twin Cities to New Orleans.
By comparison, 200 years earlier, the first settlers and their Native American hosts had relatively few choices.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s the vast abundance of game and fish available in North American forestlands, wetlands and waters was exploited by market hunters and fishermen with many species pushed to near extinction.
Fish and game management practices then evolved at the state level and federal management of migratory waterfowl followed soon after. Sustainable forestry management practices also advanced after the Depression. Today’s forest lands cover 70 percent of the forested area that existed in 1630 and that level has remained fairly constant since 1907, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Some species of game mentioned in Mark Twain’s menu have not rebounded. Only a remnant population of prairie hens that numbered in the millions at the turn of the 20th century remain. Missouri partridges have largely vanished and the taking of canvasback ducks is strictly regulated. Turtle, opossum, coon and woodcock long ago ceased to be staples of the American diet.
With repopulation of many species, the wild turkey, deer and most species of waterfowl stand as testament to the effectiveness of American conservation practices, considered to be the best in the world. The same can be said for most of the shellfish from Mark Twain’s menu, although invasive species continue to damage the health of fisheries throughout the U.S.
In perhaps one of the more remarkable recoveries, the Blue Point oyster is now thriving once again in Long Island’s Great South Bay.
We can find much to be thankful for in Twain’s whimsical look at America’s vast and varied bounty. His message 140 years ago offered a vivid appreciation for the abundance and enjoyment of the natural world — a world that continues to thrive in America.