Prairie Chickens

A Book Review | 01

Twain's Feast

While working at Textbook Services on campus, I am constantly surrounded by books. To some, whatever. To me, endless inspiration. While I walk the aisles of the textbooks that I have counted, stickered, checked-out to students, and done inventory for, I can’t help but want to read those that catch my eye. That includes anything under English, art, history, geography, various languages, philosophy, psychology, sociology, mass communications, marketing, anthropology, feminism… you get the idea. I would read nearly every book in the place if I had the time. To some, I find myself more sucked in than with others, so I check them out, and bring them home with me to read.

One such book is Andrew Beahrs’ Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens. It covers several of my favorite topics: literature, history, and food. It’s a reading for Geography 111, those lucky kids.

In the book, Beahrs explains his love for Twain, and his journey of falling in love with the food that Twain wrote about. He writes of eating breakfast on his 33rd birthday with Twain; he cooks a meal of “a mighty porterhouse steak an inch and a half thick, hot and sputtering from the griddle; dusted with fragrant pepper; enriched with little melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuineness;… a great cup of American home-made coffee, with the cream a-froth on top,… some smoking hot biscuits, [and] a plate of hot buckwheat cakes, with transparent syrup,” to quote Twain.

Each chapter is separated based on various American meals Mark Twain wrote about while traveling abroad, and missing traditional cuisine found in the states. One that stuck out to me was “It Makes Me Cry to Think of Them; Prairie-Hens, from Illinois.” As I have spent my entire life in Illinois, of course this sticks out to me. But also, within the chapter, Beahrs travels to Newton, Illinois, a town approximately 60 miles from where I went to high school. While the only reason I have ever been to Newton, was to see the experimental/metal band Side-Lined that originated there, it is also the home of the last 300 Prairie Chickens in Illinois. He went to this farm, and learned all there was to know about the area: farms, population, way of life, food.

Included in the text were various ways of cooking Prairie Chickens:

Prairie Chickens Stewed Whole

Skin the birds, cut off the head and feet, draw them without breaking the intestines, and truss them so that they will be short and plump. Put them into a large saucepan with sufficient butter to prevent burning, and brown them; when the birds are brown, add for each one a tablespoon of dry flour, and stir them about until the flour is brown. Then put in a gill of tomato-catsup for each bird, enough boiling water to cover them, and a palatable seasoning of salt and pepper, and cook them slowly for two hours, or until they are tender. Serve the birds with their sauce and plain boiled potatoes.

-Juliet Corson, Practical American Cookery and Household Management, 1886

My favorite quote from Beahrs’ book:

“I’ve always hated it when people say that America doesn’t have a real cuisine, as though fast food were the only thing we can truly call our own…food is our most basic connection to the world, our fundamental means of sustaining ourselves on earth; it’s always seemed intuitively wrong to me to say that America lacks rooted culinary traditions. Surely we have them, even if many have been buried beneath a sodden heap of McNuggets.”