Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mark Twain on bacon update

Almost three weeks ago I commented on Mark Twain's quote, "Nothing helps scenery like bacon and eggs." This morsel of culinary wit from America's celebrated writer fascinated me. Any writer who takes the time to comment on two long-standing breakfast staples is worth reading.

So I eagerly purchased a copy of reprint of Roughing It (Mark Twain, Dover Publications: Mineola, N.Y., 2003, reprint of 1913 Harper and Brothers ed.) on Amazon.com and had it shipped to Deer Crossing Camp, where I starve for bacon. The tale of Twain's western adventure arrived in the mail Saturday.

Now some 120 pages into Twain's fourth book, I'm certain the editor of The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain: A Book of Quotes (Paul Negri, eds., Dover Publications: Mineola, N.Y., 1999) misquoted Twain. He may've cited an unknown edition of the book.

My research in Dover's reprint of the 1913 edition, along with several on-line copies, indicates the correct quote should be: "Nothing helps scenery line ham and eggs."

Before you get the idea that Twain and his companions sat down to breakfast at a trail-side diner somewhere west of Salt Lake City, where the scenery-enhancing meal took place, understand that he and his traveling companions had laid in a supply of boiled ham and hard-cooked eggs during their recent layover in Salt Lake City. The purpose of this "alteration" in travel meals was to seemingly take the matter of meals into their own hands.

One grotesque breakfast stands out of the three or four meals penned into the 1872 account of "several years of variegated vagabondizing" to this point in the book. Twain and his traveling companions "could not eat the bread or the meat, nor drink the 'slumgullion.'" The stage, carrying Twain, older brother Orion Clements and fellow passenger Bemis, had pulled into a stage stop on the prairie in Nebraska early one morning.

"Our breakfast was before us, but our teeth were idle," complained Twain. Station keepers laid breakfast before the hungry travelers on a table made of a "greasy board on stilts." The bill of fare consisted of condemned army bacon and crusty bread that Twain described as "last week's." The trio was supposed to wash the meal down with a concoction called "Slumgullion" that "really pretended to be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler."

"A battered tin platter, a knife and fork, and a tin pint cup, were at each man's place, and the (stage) driver had a queens-ware saucer that had seen better days," said Twain. On these plates, Twain and his companions were subjected to "condemned army bacon which the United States would not feed to its soldiers in the forts, and the stage company had bought it cheap for the sustenance of their passengers and employees."

"We gave up the breakfast, and paid our dollar apiece and went back to our mail-bag bed in the coach, and found comfort in our pipes." With breakfast a lost cause, Twain and his companions returned to the coach.

Twain's best meal of the 20-day journey from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Carson City, Nevada, came at the Green River station in Wyoming. The "simple" breakfast of "hot biscuits, fresh antelope steaks, and coffee" was fresh in Twain's memory a decade later when he wrote Roughing It.

"Think of the monotonous execrableness of the thirty (meals) that went before it," said Twin, "to leave this one simple breakfast looming up in my memory like a shot-tower after all these years have gone by!"

Twain and his traveling companions finally took control of their own destiny and acquired a supply of bread, boiled ham and hard-cooked eggs for the torturous trip through the Nevada desert. The supply was sufficient to "last double the six hundred miles of staging we had still to do" to Carson City.

It's within this context that Twain writes the paragraph that I quoted in my last blog on Mark Twain:
And it was comfort in those succeeding days to sit up and contemplate the majestic panorama of mountains and valleys spread out below us and eat ham and hard boiled eggs while our spiritual natures revelled alternately in rainbows, thunderstorms, and peerless sunsets. Nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs. Ham and eggs, and after these a pipe--an old, rank, delicious pipe--ham and eggs and scenery, a "down grade," a flying coach, a fragrant pipe and a contented heart--these make happiness. It is what all the ages have struggled for.
I'm a little saddened that Mark Twain's original wit didn't include the phrase "bacon and eggs" because it fit so nicely into my story of bacon and butter. But I can equally accustom myself to a steady diet of "ham and eggs" as Twain did during that last push across the desert to his destination.

Bath a thick slice of boiled ham in butter, fry it over a hot fire and you've got the makings of a scenery-improving breakfast, as Twain discovered in 1861. A dollop of yellow mustard and some salt and pepper for the eggs will make any scene a spectacular one.


  1. Awesome post. I linked it to several friends.

  2. Thanks, Ed. I've been enjoying the book. Although it's a good read, he used very long paragraphs, which were common for the day. Other than that, Twain is funny at times and a great descriptive writer. Where I use 20 words to describe something, Twain will take three pages.

  3. John Muir is the same way. He called the night sky a "Starry firmament."