Peeling Mark Twain’s Onion: You’ll Never Truly Get Under His Skin

Mr. Twain Sucking the Life Out of a Defenseless Stogie

Mr. Twain Sucking the Life Out of a Defenseless Stogie

One of the intrigues about being an enthusiast about a subject or person is that once you start poking about, there seems to be a bottomless rabbit hole of information. And that hole can be well off the main road of what’s normally shared among the broad population. Now I’m not talking about true obsession, where perhaps you know more about the Morpho butterfly than its mother did, where you skip lunch then dinner sitting on the floor of a bookstore a continent away from your home because you’d heard they had a dusty tome by the premiere 18-century entomologist who also skipped most meals in favor of studying the Morphos. Not that kind of obsession, my pretties.

No, I’m referring to something more than the mere fan, but less than the stalker. As an aside, there are the rare polyglots who are able to tiptoe close to obsession’s stage while still staying out of its brightest footlights, and yet own another stage all their own. For example, going back to our fluttery friends, when Vladimir Nabokov wasn’t writing one of his remarkably layered, seriocomic novels, he spent serious time researching butterflies, publishing many monographs that professional lepidopterists recognized as authoritative. He once commented, “The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.”

Looking at Layers Leads to More Layers
This is a hide-and-seek way of getting to my main topic: how people and things are multilayered, and once you start pulling at the onionskin of a topic or character, there’s always another skin underneath. Case in point: one of the books I’m reading is titled, Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens. Now, were this work “… in the footsteps of Mamie Eisenhower,” I probably—and no insult to Mamie—would have picked it up with mild amusement and then let it flit from memory forever.

But because it’s Mark Twain, and I am more than a simple fan (though not obsessed, no, that’s not the beating of my hideous heart!), I’m reading it with great pleasure, for the author Andrew Beahrs combines his careful and light-hearted research into Twain’s writings on American food with Bearhs’ travels around the country trying to locate and eat that very food, which in the case of the prairie hens of Illinois proves ecologically difficult, and that of stomaching the ideal stewed raccoon a mite unpalatable.

From the Grubby to the Gracious
But it’s the flavor of Twain’s voice that comes through with spice, particularly when he lavishes angel-winged admiration on an American dish and contemptuous skewering on an insipid counterpart found elsewhere. His hilarious railings against spineless European coffee and expoundings on the glories of a stout cup of good American coffee do make one wonder what happened between Twain’s time and our parent’s days with the Folgers. Twain was uniquely suited to comment on the breadth of American food, for he palavered with the powerful in the boardrooms of the Eastern Seaboard, grubbed among the grubs in the grubbiest makeshift mining towns in dead-dry Nevada, and of course moved through the shoals and the high waters of foodstuffs up and down the mighty Mississippi, both in his boyhood and as a steamboat pilot.

I want to return to my original spiraling rabbit hole, for it’s in the reading of the table tastes of a famous person that you consider how layered a life is, how layered all our lives are. Twain could be, in turn, a kitten-loving sentimentalist, a flinger of flaming arrows against the establishment, a provocateur who spoke truth to power, and yet one who cultivated the company of barons of industry. A man of spectacular fame, yet of multiple spectacular failures and deeply public sorrows. His onion had many skins, and reading this off-center book tells me there are skins I’ll never know, on him and so many other subjects.

Yeah, Well, I Invented the Crossbow
Today I heard my girlfriend Alice tell one of my old friends on the phone that she had spent time a long while back to learn how to play the harmonica. Really! Who knew? Good instruction that, a reminder that thinking we know all that a person is about is a kind of blindness, because there are always layers unseen.

One thing though: Twain sang the praises of the 19-century oysters and mussels of the San Francisco Bay. That’s going much too far: I vigorously object. Oysters and mussels, gut-tugging expressions of some bronchial character, a kind of simpering slime. Though on the subject of maple syrup, I share his every sentiment.

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11 thoughts on “Peeling Mark Twain’s Onion: You’ll Never Truly Get Under His Skin

  1. In the words of Woody Allen, about those slabs of simpering slime on the half shell:

    “I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead. Not sick. Not wounded. Dead.”


    Being opened up and known can be a beautiful thing, but there’s something to be said for protecting and cultivating some of those beautiful unseen layers, whether you’re an oyster or a person.

  2. What an interesting person eats (and, I presume, drinks) is, it seems, interesting too. Thanks for pointing out how compelling all these sorts of details can be, Tom.

  3. Annie, I think Dr. Suess should have done a sequel: “Green People and Oysters.” But I’m aligned with you on the concept of unseen layers resting in their sediments (or their flowerbeds); we don’t have to reveal all. And being a sneaky sort myself, it’s native to the beast.

  4. Rick, the book I mention is great for the kind of declaratory vigor with which Twain often wrote: ringing superlatives or hand grenades of the aggrieved. But it’s not about people or politics, but about how something should be salted. There’s a bunch of interesting recipes from the 19th century in there too, if you’re in a possum-eating mood.

  5. Now that we’ve gotten down to specifics, does he have anything to say on the subject of cashews?

    I ask because, even though I know that the teleological argument is flawed, I simply don’t care. I take the fact of the cashew’s existence to be sufficient proof of the existence of a divine being. That and the coffee bean and the cocoa pod. A Teleological Trifecta, if you will.

    So- salted, or plain? And I’d bet my lower left second molar that Twain preferred them roasted, not raw.

  6. While I occasionally enjoy raw almonds, it’s my firm belief that nuts are to be roasted and salted. Smoked, sometimes.

    Best Beloved has decided that dark chocolate is part of our daily diet, like tea and fruits and vegetables and bread.

  7. I’ve only read half the book, and haven’t seen any of Twain’s feelings on cashews, almonds or chocolate. He did favor fresh muskrat though. Here’s some typical Twain from the work”

    “I know the stain of blackberry hulls. I know how a prize watermelon looks when it is sunning its fat rotundity among pumpkin vines, the rich red meat and the black seeds, and the heart standing up, a luxury fit for the elect.”

    He also had great affection for radishes.

  8. Radish, like many root and vine vegetables, are best when smaller. Zucchini should be no bigger than a big man’s finger. Radish sprouts are marvelous, but radishes themselves must be eaten before they turn to wood. Carrots, too. Any soft squash is best small.

    That’s what’s missing from our bruschetta: radishes. We’ve taken to chopping tomatoes, carrots, peppers and onions, mixing with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, basil, sea salt and pepper, and ladling it over toasted hunks of homemade whole wheat bread. Radishes would add a bit o’ bite.

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