(Note from the editor: this is an excerpt from Andrew Beahrs’ book, Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens (Penguin press). Andrew is the keynote speaker at our fourth annual Bubbles & Bivalves.
Now, San Francisco Bay isn’t actually a bay. It’s an estuary. And though this might seem semantic, it actually makes all the difference in the world. A bay simply holds water, an estuary mixes it. It’s the difference between a glass of neat gin and a dry martini—gin is well and good but dry martinis are holy, and though bays are useful, estuaries are explosive creators of life. In an estuary, fresh and salt waters come together, mixing and churning, creating a state of change and utter confusion that is one of the most literally lively conditions on the planet.
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Call it a bay or an estuary, it suffused San Francisco. Sand dunes loomed above the “old-fashioned” frame houses; below them piers probed the bright water like fingers. People bathe in the bay, at least until (or so Twain claimed) the owner of a new North Beach bathing house fed pork to a shark, cut it open on the dock, and exclaimed in horror that the fiendish beast had eaten human flesh. Twain could walk to the docks, passing Abe Warner’s Cobweb Palace with its mounds of scrimshaw and New England-style clam and crab dishes; there he could watch fishermen sail in with salmon and flatfish, and eggers unload baskets of muerre eggs from the shark-haunted Farallons. Afterward he sometimes boarded a touring sailboat for a cruise to Oakland, or San Leandro, or Alameda. Along the way he doubtless saw wide beds of eelgrass hissing under the incoming tide, and flanking reefs of native oysters. There’d have been trawlers, feluccas with brightly colored sails, even Chinese junks heading for the shrimping beds. Flights of pelicans tracing long lines in the water with their wing tips. Sea otters. Maybe a whale.
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For many decades, San Francisco was not only a city by the bay, it was a city of the bay and the ocean beyond. The abundance that Twain knew, much of which lasted until midway into the twentieth century, was the pulsing expression of the water that gave the city its name (originally called Yerba Buena, the city was renamed after the San Francisco Bay, not the other way around). There may have been no other place in America to experience the blend of wild and domestic foods that distinguished his menu; a lavish testimonial dinner in the city might include venison, bear and five varieties of duck, alongside veal tartare, calf’s head, ice cream, nuts, raisins and cake—things from both the nearby wetlands and quickly expanding tilled fields.
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As [Twain] reported in the Golden Era (one of several local journals he wrote for), the Occidental’s proprietor relied heavily on locally caught fish and game, especially the beds of shellfish spread out among the eelgrass and clean bay water:
“To a Christian who has toiled months and months in Washoe, …whose soul is caked with alkaline dust, …[whose] contrite heart finds joy and peace only in Limburger cheese and lager beer—unto such a Christian, verily the Occidental Hotel is Heaven on the Half Shell. He may even consider it to be Heaven on the entire shell, but his religion teaches a sound Washoe Christian that it would be sacrilege to say it…
“Here you are expected to breakfast on salmon, fried oysters and other substantials from 6 to half past 12; you are required to lunch on cold fowl and so forth, from half past 12 until 3; you are obliged to skirmish through a dinner comprising such edibles as the world produces, and keep it up, from 3 until half past 7; you are then compelled to lay siege to the tea-table from half past 7 until 9 o’clock, at which hour, if you refuse to move upon the supper works and destroy oysters gotten up in all kinds of seductive styles until 12 o’clock, the landlord will certainly be offended, and you might as well move your trunk to another establishment. (It is a pleasure to me to observe, incidentally, that I am on good terms with the landlord yet.)”
To hear more of Mark Twain’s words on the lost foods of America’s frontier, and get a chance to taste them, join us at the Aquarium of the Bay on May 9th!