By Bruce Kraig
ToriAvey.com welcomes new contributor Bruce Kraig! Bruce will be speaking with me in a session on food history in literature at IACP Chicago. In this post, as well as in our IACP talk, Bruce explores food in Mark Twain’s classic novel Huckleberry Finn. Learn more about Bruce here. ~ Tori
During the summer of 1845, Huckleberry Finn and his friend Jim were having adventures both peaceful and frightening along the great Mississippi River. When they got hungry, food was at hand.
So we went over to where the canoe was, and while he built a fire in a grassy open place amongst the trees, I fetched meal and bacon and coffee, and coffee-pot and frying-pan, and sugar and tin cups, and the n[…..] was set back considerable, because he reckoned it was all done with witchcraft. I catched a good big catfish, too, and Jim cleaned him with his knife, and fried him… When breakfast was ready we lolled on the grass and eat it smoking hot. Jim laid it in with all his might, for he was most about starved. Then when we had got pretty well stuffed, we laid off and lazied.
– Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
This was not Huck’s only commentary on food, nor was it the author, Mark Twain’s. In 1879 Twain went on a walking (more or less) tour of parts of Europe beginning in Germany and ending in northern Italy. He despised the European hotel food that basic sustenance required him to swallow. In his satirical book “A Tramp Abroad” Twain sets out a now famous list of American foods that he craved while away. It’s an impressive compilation of mainly rib-sticking dishes, but catfish and greens are not on it. Though as Andrew Beahrs points out many of the foods were wild (arguing that Twain was actually a locavore long before it became fashionable), likely catfish and greens were just too common for Twain to mention. In fact, most of the preparations on Twain’s list were restaurant-hotel dishes, or those made by skilled home cooks. Perhaps the reason for these omissions is the very ordinariness of fish and greens that makes them identified with homey Southern and African-American cookery.
Twain uses food, catfish and greens, to symbolize the differences between the “natural” world and the rigid, stuffy realm of civilized life. Huck, being a direct country boy, has definite opinions on what good, well prepared food is. He hates the “proper” cooking that he was forced to eat at the Widow Douglas’ table: “When you got to the table you couldn’t go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn’t really anything the matter with them,—that is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better.”
We can imagine that the Widow’s fare was the kind that young Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain’s original incarnation) ate on his uncle John Quarles’s farm in Florida, Missouri: “… fried chicken, roast pig, wild, and tame turkeys, ducks and geese, venison, squirrels, rabbits, pheasants, prairie chickens, biscuits, corn pone, buckwheat cakes, corn on the ear, beans, peas and every variety of vegetable, together with apple and peach pie, watermelons, canteloupes, peach cobbler and much else….”. No doubt all of these were prepared in the farm kitchen, one at a time, and perhaps according to recipes from the standard cookbooks of the time.
Good and proper for Twain since some of these are on his “Tramps Abroad” list, but not Huck and Jim. Although they ate plenty of catfish and wild fruits and berries, they had emergency rations that had to be made according to Huck’s culinary theory:
I hadn’t had a bite to eat since yesterday, so Jim he got out some corn-dodgers and buttermilk, and pork and cabbage and greens—there ain’t nothing in the world so good when it’s cooked right—and whilst I eat my supper we talked and had a good time.
– Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
No stifling and presumably clean kitchens for Huck, just natural food al fresco. Nor was this an organized picnic as in Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” (where Tom and Becky get lost in a cave and have only cake to eat).
If Mark Twain is the most American of all writer, as Ernest Hemmingway said, then so are catfish and greens. They have been on American menus from the 17th century onward along with hogs and corn. Cooking instructions in early cookery books varied, but fried fish are almost always dipped in flour. Lettice Bryan’s Kentucky Housewife (1839) says that catfish steaks should be cooked thusly: “….dredge them in flour and fry them to a handsome brown in boiling lard.” Lydia Marie Child in “The American Frugal Housewife” (first edition 1829) advises: “Fish should not be put in to fry until the fat is boiling hot; it is very necessary to observe this. It should be dipped in Indian meal before it is put in….” Child from Massachusetts does not mention catfish but cornmeal was very much an American ingredient. Bryan tells readers that there are two kinds of catfish, yellow and blue, the latter to be preferred. There are many kinds of native catfish, the blue being the famous Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus). Channel cats are what Huck and Jim relished and the kind that we eat today, only most are not wild-caught. As John Egerton put it: [catfish is] “…one of the few artificially produced foods that may be better than the original…” [because] “River catfish have almost succumbed to pollution.”
As for greens, almost all of the greens found on Southern/African American tables are not natives to the continent. The common dandelion is a European import, as are collared, turnips, and mustard greens. As Karen Hess put it, Hanna Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” (1747) was the most English and American cookbook of the 18th century. It was widely popular and in its later American addition has American ingredients in some recipes. But, a recipe for greens is not what one might expect: “Boil all your greens in a copper or saucepan by themselves with a great quantity of water. Boil no meat with them for that discolours them.” That advice is followed by Child who calls for dandelions and beet tops to be boiled plain. However, most 19th century books-certainly Southern ones- prescribe pork going into the pot. Lettice Bryan says that turnip greens should always be cooked with bacon. Mary Randolph’s “The Virginia Housewife” (1824) says about any boiled vegetables”…they are still better boiled with bacon in the Virginia style….”
Among all the things that these recipes tell us is that Huckleberry Finn despite his desire for individual liberty, represented by his culinary preferences, actually fit into the great American culinary tradition, and a southern one at that: greens boiled with bacon, flavors mixing and melding with pot liquor and catfish coated in cornmeal and fried in lard. Like his creator Huck and Jim were southerners and like him they loved nothing more than good grub.
The recipes presented here were given by our good friend, Chef Joe Randall of Savannah, Georgia. He runs the notable Chef Joe Randall Savannah Cooking School where anyone can go to learn and eat really well. Joe is also Chairman of the Board of the Edna Lewis Foundation. Few people have done more to enlighten Americans about great southern cooking than Chef Lewis. These simple recipes are a tribute to her greatness.
Thanks to Laura at Dish Wish for lending the lovely vintage dish and fork for these photographs!
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Catfish Fingers and Collard Greens
- 2 lbs boned catfish fillets, trimmed of fat and patted dry
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 3 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup peanut oil (for frying)
Collard Greens Ingredients
- 2 quarts water
- 2 lbs ham hocks, split
- 4 lbs collard greens
- 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
- 2 cloves garlic (minced)
- salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
To make the collard greens
In a large stockpot bring water and ham hocks to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 1 1/2-2 hours.
Wash greens thoroughly; drain and remove stems. Cut into broad strips.
Add greens, red pepper flakes and garlic to pot. Return to boil, then reduce heat and simmer 1 1/2-2 hours or until greens are tender. Remove ham hocks from pot. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
To make the catfish fingers
Cut the fillets into 1/2-inch strips. Lightly season them with salt, black pepper, and cayenne.
In a large bowl or glass baking dish, combine the cornmeal, flour, and any remaining salt and pepper; dredge each strip of fish in the mixture.
- Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large frying pan or cast-iron skillet until hot.
Fry each strip of fish until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes, then turn and cook it on the other side. Do not crowd the pan. Drain the fish strips on paper towels.
As written, the catfish recipe produces a lot of breading, far more than we needed for 2 pounds of catfish. Feel free to cut the breading in half.
Beahrs, Andrew. “Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens.” New York: Penguin Books, 2011.
Bears, Andrew. “Twain’s Feast: “The American” at Table,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring 2007), pp. 26-34.
Bryan, Lettice. “The Kentucky Housewife.” Cincinnati, 1839 (reprinted Bedford MA: Applewood Books (nd).
Child, Lydia Marie. “The American Frugal Houswife (29th edition). New York 1844 (reprinted with an introduction by Janice Bluestone Longone. New York: Dover Publications (1999).
Egerton, John. “Southern Food.” New York: Knopf (1987)
Glasse, Hanna. “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.” (American edition, Alexandria, VA (1805) (reprinted with introduction by Karen Hess. Bedford, MA. (1997).
Levy, Walter. The Picnic. Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press (2014), 100-101.
Masters, Edgar Lee. “Mark Twain: A Portrait.” New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons (1938).
Mendelson, Amy. “Stand Facing the Stove: Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America The Joy of Cooking (NY, 2003).
Randolph, Mary. “The Virginia Housewife.” Baltimore, MD (1824) (reprinted with introduction by Shirley Abbott. Birmingham, AL: Oxmoor House. (1984).
Twain, Mark. Huckleberry Finn. New York: Chanticleer, n.d. Print.