Nick Offerman, the deadpan comedian from “Parks and Recreation,” has long been a fan of Mark Twain, the cigar-chomping master of deadpan comedy. And once you catch the similarity between these two Midwesterners with their unhurried pacing and straight-faced absurdity, you can’t unhear it.
“I would be flattering myself to claim any genealogy,” Offerman said by phone, “but he’s definitely one of the main thumbtacks on my chart of inspirations.”
Offerman’s affinity for Twain has made him the perfect narrator for “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” But his latest project delivers an even more delicious partnership: an audiobook about Samuel Clemens’ favorite foods.
The recipe for this project is more than a century old. In 1879, Clemens was touring Europe and feeling ravenously homesick for American delicacies. To quell his hunger, he wrote up a menu of 80 dishes he would enjoy as soon as he got off the boat: a vast banquet of everything from hot buckwheat cakes and green corn to Sheepshead and San Francisco mussels.
That fantasy dinner eventually became the basis of “Twain’s Feast,” a charming work of biography and cultural history published by Andrew Beahrs in 2010.
And now, finally, dinner is served.
Rather than record a straight narration of Beahrs’ book, Offerman hosts an elaborately constructed production that mixes his readings and reflections with interviews with Beahrs and other Twain scholars. What’s more, it includes a fully realized version of Twain’s pipe-dream meal prepared by chef Tyler Anderson at the Twain House in Hartford, Conn. Wanda Sykes and Jeff Tweedy are among the guests who sit down with Offerman for the dinner of a lifetime.
The result is as close as you’ll ever get to eating with Mark Twain without a time machine. What starts as a tasty meal becomes a rich exploration of American history. As Offerman and Beahrs cut into various meats and vegetables, their conversation moves into all kinds of surprising, sometimes tragic avenues of our heritage. Coon, for instance, is not just an unusual entree, it’s a racial slur that evokes Twain’s complex relationship to African-Americans.
“Since we had that dinner at Twain’s house,” Offerman says, “I’ve managed to survive without another taste of raccoon.”
Less fraught ingredients lead to more whimsical considerations. A chapter on maple syrup, for instance, reveals that Twain owned a large collection of electric vibrators. I don’t exactly remember the connection; I may have blacked out.
Given all the genuinely mouthwatering items in Twain’s feast - baked apples, Porterhouse steak, soft-shell crabs - Offerman’s favorite is something of a surprise. “I really enjoyed, both in the writing and in the gustatory consumption, the terrapin soup,” he says. “I’m a sucker for local bucolic flavor. And so the history of the Chesapeake Bay region and all of the food items that we have exhausted from that incredible source of life I found fascinating - particularly that Philadelphia and Baltimore each had their own competing terrapin soup recipes.”
He warns would-be chefs, though, that preparation is not easy. “The bummer about turtle is cleaning the turtle out of the shell. That’s just a drag.” And besides, he admits, they’re cute. “If you can keep the turtle around and find some quinoa instead, I recommend it.”
An ardent fan of Wendell Berry, Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, Offerman discovered that Twain’s feast was spiced with sadness. The rumors of the death of American fauna and flora have not been greatly exaggerated. He recalls Twain’s description of Lake Tahoe: “The clarity with which you can see to the bottom and the incredible, almost fairy-tale trout that no longer live in that lake, I found that particularly heartbreaking.”
What’s needed is a wholesale rethinking of how we produce our food. “Corporations have sort of gaslit our population into eating things that aren’t necessarily the most wholesome,” Offerman says, “so that those people might derive the greatest profits instead of thinking about serving us the healthiest fare.” Beahrs’ book served to bolster his “predilection for the farmers market and sustainable local produce that we can all enjoy.”
But finding sustainable food isn’t the only challenge nowadays for meals in Offerman’s family. He’s in England working an upcoming new series called “Devs”; his wife, Megan Mullally, is in L.A. filming the revived “Will & Grace.” But they insist on seeing each other every two weeks.
For this Thanksgiving, he’s looking forward to a huge family dinner in Mobile, Ala., where a niece is attending college. The menu, he predicts, will be strictly traditional.
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“My mom and dad are amazing producers of food and also cooks,” he says. “But they’ve never been terribly experimental because their old favorites have never drawn any complaints. I have traveled many arduous miles over the years just for the turkey and the mashed potatoes and the stuffing. And then an embarrassment of pies.”
Mark Twain would approve.