Friday, March 28, 2014

Of Possums, Oysters and Mark Twain

My Cook the Books Cohost Simona (the cheese-, pasta- and bread-making force behind Briciole) picked a wonderful title for our online foodie book club to savor: Andrew Beahrs' Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens. The book examines some regional foods that Twain pined for, both in terms of their historical importance and as they appear in contemporary America, interspersed with some snippets about Twain's interesting life. It's a great gumbo of a book full of food history, ecology and literary biography and a good introduction to the life and words of this multi-faceted American genius without having to snap one's wrists wielding his autobiography (Vols. 1 and 2 of an anticpated three volume set recently released on the centenary of his death and weighing in at 4 lbs. each so far).

Twain's Feast is a book that both Dan and I thoroughly enjoyed and which we kept reading out loud to each other during each of our turns flipping through it. Beahrs' starts with a list of American dishes that the homesick and hotel food-weary Twain dreams of tasting upon his return from the European tour described in his hilarious 1880 travel memoir A Tramp Abroad:
"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 Terapin soup.Oysters roasted in shell-Northern style.Soft-shell crabs. Connecticut shad.Baltimore perch.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.'Possum. Coon.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 stylePeach pie. American mince pie.Pumpkin pie. Squash pie.All sorts of American pastry."
To cap off this "modest" repast, Twain also noted that he would like some fresh fruit and ice water on the table.

It's quite a list. And one would think that a food blogger, namely me, would have an easy time selecting from this cornucopia of foods to produce a dish in homage of Messrs. Beahrs and Twain, but I was unsettled about what to make.

My first inclination was to make Saratoga Potatoes, being that I live in New York's Saratoga County and these CRISPY delights are the stuff of local food legend. Saratoga Potatoes are now more commonly known as potato chips -or crisps to you Brits- and were allegedly first whipped up in anger by George C. Crum, the chef at Moon's Lake House in Saratoga Springs, for a pesky customer who kept returning his potatoes back to the kitchen. I made a pilgrimage to Potato Chip Lane, near the famous Saratoga Race Track, but was left uninspired, though I plan to try my hand at chips in a future blog post.

Twain's list referenced two American mammals, the opposum and the raccoon, which are given a chapter's treatment by Beahrs' as he attends a southern Arkansas coon roast. I don't understand why the locals bother cooking up 600 POUNDS of coon meat, when the stench from the fat makes the meat nigh inedible until it is boiled and rinsed and sauced to death. Then it takes like sauce. Must be just the novelty or the tradition of the thing.

I almost took it as a divine portent when unbelievably, we had a day time visit from a young opposum two weeks ago during the one day it was sunny and above freezing this calendar year. This possum was a real cutie and stayed around our house for almost six hours snacking on wild cherries that had fallen (and no doubt fermented) on the ground. At dusk, it made its way painfully slowly across our well-trafficked road to resume hibernation in our neighbor's barn. (Don't tell her, she's not a marsupial fan).

I ended up inspired by Beahrs' chapter on oysters, once so plentiful in the U.S. that they were sold by the barrel. I usually make my late mother-in-law's Scalloped Oyster recipe at the holidays, though my last several versions have been soupier than desired since we now make a gluten-free version. Here I was almost ready to go back to the drawing board again, as every supermarket and fish market I tried did not have them in stock. Apparently oysters are now considered only a holiday item. I did end up with one container of shucked oysters from the Saratoga Springs Price Chopper (they weren't in stock the other two times I tried) which were cleverly hidden away in a refrigerated case next to the organic vegetable section, so clutching this in the crook of my arm throughout the rest of my shopping trip, I got it home and tinkered with the family recipe to make this rich and delectable side dish.

Grandma Millie's Scalloped Oysters

1 cup gluten-free crackers, crumbled (I used Glutino original premium rounds – 4.4 oz. They are most like the saltines Millie used in the original recipe).

1 cup gluten-free bread crumbs (from 3-4 slices of GF bread, not those Sahara dry pre-packaged GF crumbs)

1 stick butter, softened

1 pt. oysters, liquid reserved

1/4 tsp. black pepper

milk or cream

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. Worcestershire sauce (check to make sure GF)

Use 1-2 Tbsp. butter to grease a 1-1/2 qt. casserole dish. Melt remaining butter and mix with cracker and bread crumbs.

Roughly cut up oysters to break up large pieces (I used kitchen shears in the oyster container so I wouldn’t lose any of the precious oyster liquor).

Place 1/3 of the buttered crumbs on the bottom of the casserole dish. Spoon half of oysters over the crumbs. Repeat layers once, reserving last third of crumbs.

Add enough milk or cream to oyster liquor to make 1 cup. Add in salt, pepper and Worcestershire sauce. Stir to mix well and then pour over oyster casserole. Top with remaining cracker crumbs.

Bake at 350 for 45 minutes, uncovered.

If you don't need to dine gluten-free, replace GF crackers and bread with an equal amount of saltine crackers, like Grandma Millie used to. This dish is lovely served with a green salad and roll on the side or as part of your New England holiday table.

Please join us after the March 31st deadline for this round of Cook the Books to see the other parts of Twain's Feast that my compadres have cooked up. And please also consider joining us in reading and cooking from our next Cook the Books selection, Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas. Deadline for that next round of Cook the Books is June 1, 2014.

I am also sending a scoop of this rich and decadent oyster treat to Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads, a weekly roundup of links to foodcentric posts across the blogosphere.


Beth F said...

Yum!! That oyster dish sounds good. And I had to laugh at the looooong list of foods Twain was was craving.

Alicia Foodycat said...

Australian possums are so much cuter...

I'm not a huge oyster fan, definitely not of raw oysters, but I would definitely like to try your scalloped oysters! I seem to remember that was something MFK Fisher loved too.

(Diane) bookchickdi said...

That is some list Mr. Twain had! And I never knew that about Saratoga potatoes, how interesting.

Carole said...

Great to find your blog through Beth Fish Reads! Tried to sign up to follow via GFC but Google acting up so will sign up with Bloglovin instead. Cheers

Tea said...

I wondered about the Saratoga potatoes. Glad you explained. Can't imagine feeling sad while living on Potato Chip Lane. Knew a lady who baked great apples. I see Apple Dumplings are listed too.

Debra Eliotseats said...

Excellent post, Rachel, I recently became a huge oyster fan after our recent trip but NOLA may be the only place I will eat them. Your dish sounds so good and it does remind me of the holidays. We often have a 'possum visiting our patio to get I. The bird seed. I'm not a big fan of them (think they look creepy). :(

Debra Eliotseats said...

Excellent post, Rachel, I recently became a huge oyster fan after our recent trip but NOLA may be the only place I will eat them. Your dish sounds so good and it does remind me of the holidays. We often have a 'possum visiting our patio to get I. The bird seed. I'm not a big fan of them (think they look creepy). :(

Teddyree said...

Thoroughly enjoyed your post, we eat oysters natural and oysters kilpatrick but I haven't heard of them done this way in Australia. I'd give it a go :)

Tina said...

I'm very pleased you didn't cook that cute little possum! Love the oyster recipe. Love oysters baked, raw or in a stew. MMMM

Also, the gluten free adaptions intrigued me. I am on a mission ow to research gluten free diets and menus. Health issues have my interest peeked!

Claudia said...

A great review and post Rachael, though any oysters we get here have traveled a long distance. And the closest we get to possum would be mongoose, a completely inedible species. Even dogs won't touch 'em!

Deb in Hawaii said...

Great post! I'm with Tina--happy the possum didn't become dinner. ;-) My mom used to make oyster stew for New Years for my dad with lots of butter and cream--your scallop dish looks equally decadent. Yum!

Simona Carini said...

The chapter on raccoon an possum meat made me laugh till a lot, especially the beginning: Beahrs lives in Berkeley, so we share feelings about raiding raccoons. Lovely post and great choice of recipe. The story of oysters is quite interesting. I am glad you and Dan enjoyed the book. Thank you so much for your contribution to Cook the Books.

Laurie C said...

I've never tried oysters! Must be my parents didn't like them, or we couldn't afford them, or I'm just not adventurous enough. I've been thinking of reading Funny in Farsi, so looking forward to your foodie posts about that!