Recipe roundup inspired by Mark Twain’s “A Little Bill of Fare”
from “A Tramp Abroad,” 1891
Portrait of Mark Twain. Detail of photo by Mathew Brady, February 7, 1871.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
This coming weekend we celebrate the birthday of American literary luminary Mark Twain, who was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30, 1835. One of the most brilliant writers and humorists of all time, Twain left behind a number of timeless and eminently quotable works. He is perhaps best known today for his classic American novels, Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In his time, however, Twain rose to fame as a journalist writing short, humorous stories for newspapers. His works of fiction were often inspired by the experiences of his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri. At the time, Missouri made up part of the country’s western border and legally allowed its residents to own slaves. His summers were spent in the slave quarters of his uncle’s farm. There he heard many of the tales that would later influence some of his most famous stories.
During Twain’s 74 years, he witnessed and often wrote about America’s changing landscape during its early years of expansion. At 18 years old he wrote for newspapers in Philadelphia and New York. He returned home a few years later to take on a career as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River. When the Civil War began, travel along the Mississippi stopped and Twain was out of a job. Around this time his brother Orion, the newly appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory, invited him for a visit. On Twain’s journey westward he encountered many characters that would inspire his future writing. Around this time he adopted the pen name Mark Twain, which he would use for the rest of his writing career. Most biographers believe the name derives from a riverboating colloqualism meaning the mark on the line is two (twain) fathoms—in other words, the water is deep enough for safe passage. Twain himself claimed that he first heard the term used by riverboating captain Isaiah Sellers. Some biographers theorize that the true source of the name was a running bar tab he incurred while living in Virginia City, Nevada.
Twain’s first major writing success came in 1865, when his short story Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog (now known as The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County) appeared in newspapers and magazines nationwide. Over the next decade, Twain grew to become a household name throughout the nation.
Mark Twain circa 1880 writing at Quarry Farm in Elmira, NY. Source: Wikimedia Commons
In 1880 Twain published A Tramp Abroad, one of his five books on travel. It is considered the “unofficial” sequel to The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress, which was written in 1869 and based on Twain’s experience on a boat voyage to Europe and the Holy Land. According to the Rob Powers’ biography Mark Twain: A Life, the author struggled with how to classify A Tramp Abroad. It is part fictional and part autobiographical, interspersed with short stories and essays. The book revolves around Twain and a fictional character named Harris, who is based on Twain’s real-life friend and fellow writer Joseph Twichell. Together, the two men travel through central and southern Europe, encountering many interesting places and characters along the way.
A Tramp Abroad, First Edition Cover, 1880. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Included in A Tramp Abroad is a list of foods that Twain’s character missed fiercely during his European travels. This section is often referred to as Twain’s Little Bill of Fare. When reading it, one can plainly feel Twain’s increasing desperation for a familiar American meal.
“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.
Fried chicken, Southern style.
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.
San Francisco mussels, steamed.
Oyster soup. Clam Soup.
Philadelphia Terapin soup.
Oysters roasted in shell-Northern style.
Soft-shell crabs. Connecticut shad.
Brook trout, from Sierra Nevadas.
Lake trout, from Tahoe.
Sheep-head and croakers, from New Orleans.
Black bass from the Mississippi.
American roast beef.
Roast turkey, Thanksgiving style.
Cranberry sauce. Celery.
Roast wild turkey. Woodcock.
Canvas-back-duck, from Baltimore.
Prairie liens, from Illinois.
Missouri partridges, broiled.
Boston bacon and beans.
Bacon and greens, Southern style.
Hominy. Boiled onions. Turnips.
Pumpkin. Squash. Asparagus.
Butter beans. Sweet potatoes.
Lettuce. Succotash. String beans.
Mashed potatoes. Catsup.
Boiled potatoes, in their skins.
New potatoes, minus the skins.
Early rose potatoes, roasted in the ashes, Southern style, served hot.
Sliced tomatoes, with sugar or vinegar. Stewed tomatoes.
Green corn, cut from the ear and served with butter and pepper.
Green corn, on the ear.
Hot corn-pone, with chitlings, Southern style.
Hot hoe-cake, Southern style.
Hot egg-bread, Southern style.
Hot light-bread, Southern style.
Buttermilk. Iced sweet milk.
Apple dumplings, with real cream.
Apple pie. Apple fritters.
Apple puffs, Southern style.
Peach cobbler, Southern style
Peach pie. American mince pie.
Pumpkin pie. Squash pie.
All sorts of American pastry.
Fresh American fruits of all sorts, including strawberries which are not to be doled out as if they were jewelry, but in a more liberal way.
Ice-water—not prepared in the ineffectual goblet, but in the sincere and capable refrigerator.
Americans intending to spend a year or so in European hotels will do well to copy this bill and carry it along. They will find it an excellent thing to get up an appetite with, in the dispiriting presence of the squalid table d’hôte.”
– Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880
I’ve always loved this list; it’s such a colorful, visceral description of the foods that were popular in America in the late 19th century. For my fellow Mark Twain fans, I’ve compiled a few recipes from me and my culinary pals to celebrate Twain’s Little Bill of Fare. Try a few of them and cook your own Twain-inspired feast!
Learn more about Mark Twain on PBS:
“A Life Lived in a Rapidly Changing World: Samuel L. Clemens‚ 1835-1910.” Mark Twain House & Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.
Clemens, Samuel Langhorne. A Tramp Abroad. Hartford, CT: American, 1891. Print.
Fatout, Paul – Editor (1976). Mark Twain Speaking. University of Iowa Press, IA.
Powers, Ron. Mark Twain: A Life. New York: Free, 2005. Print.
Youngblood, Wayne (2006). Mark Twain Along the Mississippi. World Almanac Library, Milwaukee, WI.