I recently re-read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.1 I had read it once as a kid and didn’t appreciate it then. Reading it now, I found it extremely entertaining and culturally revealing, however, my original purpose in re-reading this piece of literature was to learn of some of the foods that common people ate at the time–the mid 1800′s.
Of course, to gather such information from a work of fiction, one must assume that the author depicted the types of foods eaten with reasonable accuracy. I think that such an assumption is warranted here. The book is not primarily about food and was written prior to the existence of the big-food and big-agriculture corporations that later asserted great influence on popular understanding of food and nutrition.
The story, first published in 1885, is primarily about a young boy named Huckleberry Finn (Huck), who narrates the story, and a runaway slave named Jim. The pair take a trip down the Mississippi River on a raft, fleeing civilization. The story unfolds as they form a bond and have adventures along the way. Such adventures later in the story also involve Huck’s old friend Tom Sawyer. Throughout the story, the author details numerous aspects of the characters’ lives through the words of Huck, including about their food.
The foods that Huck describes sound truly delicious and nourishing. Thoughout the book, Huck makes references to catching fish, especially catfish, and eating them at all meals, including for breakfast.
He tells of an occasion on which he was exploring in some wilderness and “found plenty strawberries, ripe and prime; and green summer-grapes, and green razberries2; and the green blackberries was just beginning to show. They would all come handy by-and-by, I judged.” (p. 38)
On another occasion, Huck explains that he “fetched meal and bacon and coffee, and coffee-pot and frying-pan, and sugar and tin cups. … I catched a good big cat-fish, too, and Jim cleaned him out with his knife, and fried him.” (p. 41)
On another occasion, Huck and Jim had taken shelter for the night in a cavern that they found in the wilderness. They had caught some fish and had made a fire to cook dinner. It had started to rain, but in the shelter they were dry. As the two sat enjoying each other’s company around the fire, Huck said, “Jim, this is nice. … I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else but here. Pass me along another hunk of fish and some hot corn-bread.” (p.47) I wish I had been there too.
At one point, Huck found himself the guest in the home of some generous strangers. Impressed with the food, he explained that “[c]old corn-pone3, cold corn-beef, butter and butter-milk–that is what they had for me down there, and there ain’t nothing better that ever I’ve come across yet.” (p.92)
On a final occasion, while on the raft and hungry, Huck explained that “I hadn’t had a bite to eat since yesterday; so Jim he got out some corn-dodgers4 and buttermilk, and pork and cabbage, and greens–there ain’t nothing in the world so good, when it’s cooked right–and whilst I eat my supper we talked and had a good time.” (p. 107)
Of course, the story was not about food in any way, and the author didn’t intend to provide an example of proper nutrition. Perhaps Mr. Twain was ignorant on the subject. Nevertheless, the story does provide such an example, or at least a partial one, by giving a glimpse into a world where nutritious foods abounded as part of a tradition that still lived. Huck and the other characters no doubt lacked appreciation for the traditions that they followed. But they followed them nonetheless because they knew nothing else, and because such is the nature of tradition.
In our modern world where tradition has disappeared and corporate food products have largely replaced nutritous traditional foods, it is pleasing to be reminded of, and to learn from, those prior times.
1 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, Barnes & Noble Books, 2003.
2 As bad as my speling is, these misspellings are original in the work and fully intended by its author.
3 According to the footnote on page 37, corn-pone is “a meager home recipe of cornmeal, salt, and water, baked in an oven or cooked in a frying pan.”
4 According to the footnote on page 107, corn-dodgers are “cornbread biscuits.”