Where the Wild Things Were
IN 1879, a homesick Mark Twain sat in an Italian hotel room and wrote a long fantasy menu of all his favorite American foods. The menu began as a joke, with Twain describing the 80-dish spread as a “modest, private affair” that he wanted all to himself. But it reads today as a window into a great change in American life — the gradual, widespread disappearance of wild foods from the nation’s tables.
Twain listed cranberry sauce, “Thanksgiving style” roast turkey and the celery essential to poultry stuffing. But he surrounded these traditional holiday dishes with roast wild turkey, frogs and woodcock.
Along with hot biscuits, broiled chicken and stewed tomatoes, Twain wanted turtle soup, possum and canvasback ducks fattened by Chesapeake Bay wild celery. In Twain’s day, New York City markets still sold raccoon, a profusion of wild ducks and bear. From Delmonico’s restaurant to hunters’ homes, the nation’s tables held an easy blend of wild and cultivated foods.
So it was natural for Twain’s wonderful menu to include the best of America’s forests and waters, as well as its orchards and plowed fields. But for that very reason, it was as different from the first Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth in 1621 as from our own intensively domesticated holiday meals.
The first Thanksgiving was a wild affair. Though a version of traditional English “Harvest Home” festivals, and intended as a celebration of the Pilgrims’ first successful crop of corn, squash and beans, the meal was largely built around foods taken from the woods and waters around the struggling Plymouth Colony.
The two early accounts of the meal tell us that the Wampanoag guests (who outnumbered the English settlers two to one) brought several deer, and that a party of Pilgrims returned from “fowling” with a good take. The latter almost certainly referred to ducks and geese, which migrate in autumn and could be taken much more easily than wary wild turkeys.
Gooseberries, wild plums and lobsters, as well as eels “trod” from the nearby salt marsh, completed a meal intimately bound to the surrounding land and water. Though corn prompted the celebration, and was doubtless included in pottages and stews, the centerpieces were all products of the bountiful yet intensely threatening natural world.
Twain’s Thanksgiving meals were separated from the Plymouth settlers by more than two centuries and, perhaps more important, by Sarah Josepha Hale, the enormously influential editor of the magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. In her 1827 novel “Northwood,” Hale described the Thanksgiving feast she would help to establish as a national holiday tradition through decades of determined advocacy.
She began, of course, with turkey, set in a “lordly station” and flanked with a sirloin of beef, ducks, geese and a leg of pork. There was also an array of vegetables, and a chicken pie “wholly formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper, and covered with an excellent puff paste.”
This meal symbolized, rather than replicated, the first Plymouth celebration. Where Plymouth had feared starvation, Hale assumed easy abundance, replacing hunted and foraged foods with those from the nation’s bountiful farms. She insisted upon pumpkin pie and many other dishes unknown to the first celebrants, who rejoiced over what they’d been able to grow, rather than what they had chosen to eat.
Hale’s was the new domestic ideal. Still, Twain’s menu suggests that wild foods continued to give American cuisine its unmistakable character. On Thanksgiving, Twain wanted a domestic turkey, with cranberry sauce and stuffing. But every Christmas, he delighted in the gift of a brace of prairie hens a dear friend sent him by rail from the Illinois tall grass.
Even some farmed foods had recent wild roots, such as the cranberries first cultivated a mere half-century earlier. Though the majority of foods in Twain’s day were domestic, the wild ones were distinct and wonderful, rooting meals in the natural world as cultivated things never could.
His menu celebrated the amazingly varied landscapes of an entire nation. Shad from Connecticut, mussels from San Francisco, brook trout from the Sierras and partridges from Missouri all found their place alongside apple dumplings, Southern-style egg bread, “American toast,” and strawberries, which were “not to be doled out as if they were jewelry, but in a more liberal way.”
In a sense, Twain’s menu was a biographical sketch, for during a lifetime of travel he had eaten each and every one of the wild foods near its source. But it was also a portrait of what American food could be at its best: a cuisine with a deep sense of place, reflecting a splendid jumble of national landscapes and the people who lived in and off them.
The Pilgrims appreciated wild foods for their contribution to survival; Twain, for their taste and their hold on his memory. All saw the foods as fundamental to the America they knew. None would have imagined that many would one day be seen as curiosities.
But with the exception of fish, today it is vanishingly rare to find wild foods in our marketplaces. The 10 million prairie hens in the Illinois of Twain’s day have diminished to a mere 300 birds; his terrapin struggle to survive amid wounded Eastern wetlands; his titanic Lahontan cutthroat “lake trout, from Tahoe” were killed off by over-fishing and the introduction of invasive species. Tasting some of Twain’s wild things is impossible or illegal, with more limited to dedicated hunters and fishermen.
Preserving or restoring the wild foods that remain begins with appreciating what they have to offer — extraordinary taste and smell, certainly, but also the joy of experiencing the marshes and mountains and lakes these plants and birds and animals rely upon. We have a great deal to learn from Twain’s instinctive premise: that losing a wild food means losing part of the landscape of our lives.Andrew Beahrs is the author of the novel “The Sin Eaters” and the forthcoming “Twain’s Feast.”