Author Andrew Beahrs hit on a clever way of putting America's current food culture in perspective: He took a list of 80 or so American foodstuffs that Twain missed while touring Europe (published as part of Twain's memoir A Tramp Abroad) and took a closer look at some of the more intriguing items, especially those that have for the most part vanished from the American diet. Twain's list is a starting point; Twain himself is like a guiding spirit over Beahrs' investigations. But the book itself is much more about the feast than it is about Twain.
While Twain's Feast isn't a cookbook per se, it does include recipes -- historical recipes -- which are probably not anything you're going to want to press into service for weeknight dinners, and maybe only if your middle-schooler is completing a unit on frontier America and you have to cook something Americans would have eaten in 1880 for the class potluck.
Chapters are each devoted to a particular food from Twain's list, with Beahrs recounting what acquaintaince Twain and his contemporaries would have had with the food as well as his current adventures tracking down the same food. The book starts on a high note with Beahrs encountering prairie chickens at one of the only places they can be found, in Illinois, where they once numbered in the millions. (Fewer than 200 can be found there today, due to overhunting and disappearing habitat.) In fact, it looks like you could participate in the same kind of observation session that Beahrs did, in southern Illinois, this coming March.
He follows that with a raucous account of a coon feed down south. Raccoon was once a common food; now, it's now a tourist novelty, Beahrs seems to say (although in rural areas, it is not uncommon for people to hunt raccoon to put on the table).
Other chapters cover terrapins (once used for a common dish, turtle soup), fishing in Lake Tahoe, the current state of oysters in our nation's bays, and cranberry bogs on Martha's Vineyard, among other topics.
More than anything, Beahrs conveys a sense of what America has lost culinarily and environmentally, and continues to lose (witness the devastation stemming from the BP oil spill in 2010).
This is both a good read and a well researched book that I recommend highly, although I did get the sense that a certain excitement drains out of the telling after the highs of the first two chapters. Perhaps it's the cumulative effect of discussing so many missing or depleted foods. But Twain's Feast underscores the idea that connecting with our food's sources should not be just the trend of the moment, but a crucial ongoing social concern.