Mark Twain on cooking: Southerners can, Northerners can’t

Food often played a supporting role in Samuel Clemens’ writings–whether it was the silver- and china-laden tables of the swells he was dissecting or his amazement at prices that oh-so-expensive restaurants charged for platters of stewed and stuffed innards.

For those who like Clemens, buy yourself a late holiday gift. The 738 pages of the first of three volumes of The Autobiography of Mark Twain is out, and Harriet Elinor Smith and other editors of the Mark Twain Project did an amazing job.

I offer up a couple of hundred words where Clemens waxes poetically on the food laid out on the dining table at his Uncle John’s Missouri far…and the fact that Northerners just can’t cook.  The entry is dated 1847.

“Fried chicken; roast pig; wild and tame turkeys, ducks and geese; venison just killed; squirrels, rabbits, pheasants, partridges, prairie chickens; homemade bacon and ham; hot biscuits, hot batter-cakes, hot buckwheat cakes, hot wheatbread cakes, hot rolls, hot corn pone; fresh corn boiled on the ear, succotash, butter-beans, string beans, tomatoes, peas, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes; buttermilk, sweet milk, ‘clabber;’ watermelon, musk melon, cantaloupes – all fresh from the garden – apple pie, peach pie, pumpkin pie, apple dumplings, peach cobbler – I can’t remember the rest.

“The way that the things were cooked was perhaps the main splendor,”  Clemens continued. “For instance, the cornbread, hot biscuits and wheatbread, and the fried chicken – things that have never been properly cooked in the North. In fact, no one there is able to learn the art, as far as my experience goes. The North thinks it knows how to make cornbread, but this is a gross superstition. Perhaps no bread in the world is quite as good as Southern cornbread, and perhaps no bread in the world is quite as bad as the Northern imitation of it. The North seldom tries to fry chicken, and this is well; the art cannot be learned north of the line of Mason and Dixon, nor anywhere in Europe.’’

In the interest of full disclosure, I did grow up in Miami when it was still a Southern city and I just happen to agree with every word Clemens said.


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