Samuel Putnam

Novelist and food writer Andrew Beahrs is certainly a polymath. In Twain’s Feast, Beahrs—who has an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology as well as an M.F.A. in creative writing—writes eruditely about subjects as diverse as Mark Twain’s biography, the ecology of the Mississippi delta, the history of the Wampanoags of Massachusetts and a lot of food. Inspired by an imaginary menu Twain wrote while homesick for American cuisine on a European trip, Beahrs investigates a wide array of distinctly American foodstuffs, some “lost” (terrapin, prairie hens), others endangered (native Western trout, the products of Louisiana’s magnificent fisheries) and others, like cranberries and maple syrup, that are still robustly produced, much as they were in Twain’s day.

Twain’s Feast is loosely organized as a travelogue of important places in Twain’s life and the local foods he held dear, but Beahrs’ real aim is to argue for the value of local and wild foods, along with the importance of maintaining the ecological balance necessary for them to flourish. While eloquently explaining the demise of the prairie ecosystem as a consequence of large-scale industrial agriculture, or the efforts of the Fish and Wildlife Service to restore the cutthroat trout in the Sierra Nevada, Beahrs at once laments the loss of much of our national bounty and celebrates the efforts of those who seek to preserve what they can. Interspersing episodes from Twain’s life and travels with contemporary recipes and a wealth of historical information about the food production and eating habits of 19th-century America, Beahrs posits that the current foodie mantra of “fresh, local and sustainable” is in fact the hallmark of our culinary tradition and was a cherished part of Twain’s national identity.

While his arguments can sometimes be repetitive, Beahrs’ wealth of interesting stories make for a pleasurable read. Twain’s Feast is an enjoyable and informative book that will be welcomed by anyone interested in America’s culinary and cultural heritage.

Novelist and food writer Andrew Beahrs is certainly a polymath. In Twain’s Feast, Beahrs—who has an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology as well as an M.F.A. in creative writing—writes eruditely about subjects as diverse as Mark Twain’s biography, the ecology of the Mississippi delta, the history of the Wampanoags of Massachusetts and a lot of food. […]

In 52 Loaves, William Alexander, an IT manager and amateur baker, recounts a year spent trying to bake the “perfect“ loaf of bread. Alexander, author of The $64 Tomato, takes the reader on a quest that involves growing his own wheat, building a brick oven in his backyard and traveling to a yeast factory in Canada, a commercial wheat mill, a communal oven in Morocco and, ultimately, a French monastery, where he teaches the monks to make their own bread.

Alexander, who is a funny and likable writer, tells us a great deal about the history of bread, the process of making commercial yeast, and one courageous doctor’s fight against a disease called pellagra, which killed hundreds of thousands of people during the Great Depression and has now been vanquished by the simple addition of niacin to bread. But while 52 Loaves is in one sense a book about bread, it is really the story of a middle-aged man discovering a need for spiritual meaning in his life—a need that is entwined with, and perhaps even supersedes, his quest for the ultimate loaf. Though the sections of the book are named after the seven daily services of the monastic ritual, Alexander does not return to the Christian faith of his grandparents. He does, however, come away with a renewed appreciation for the value of a spiritual life, and he learns that “the only thing more unsettling than having your faith shaken is having your lack of faith shaken.”

If you are looking for a book that will teach you how to make a great loaf of bread, 52 Loaves is probably not the place to start; Alexander does include some detailed recipes at the end of the book, but it is not meant to be manual for bakers. Instead, it is a very engaging and well-written book about the lessons that a smart and sensitive person learned from trying to do something as well as possible—and that is a story always worth reading.

In 52 Loaves, William Alexander, an IT manager and amateur baker, recounts a year spent trying to bake the “perfect“ loaf of bread. Alexander, author of The $64 Tomato, takes the reader on a quest that involves growing his own wheat, building a brick oven in his backyard and traveling to a yeast factory in […]

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