‘Twainiac’ Nick Offerman Reads Aloud About Samuel Clemens’ Favorite Foods

December 21, 2018
 
Nick Offerman stopped by our studios earlier this month to talk with NPR's David Greene about his latest audio project.

Nick Offerman stopped by our studios earlier this month to talk with NPR's David Greene about his latest audio project.

Liz Westfield/Illinois Public Media

David Greene talks to U of I grad Nick Offerman — one of the voices behind Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens — about the series from Audible.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Just imagine if you could hear the voice of Mark Twain reading his own works, like "The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICK OFFERMAN: (Reading) That same dull throb of sound was borne to the listeners again. I know now, exclaimed Tom. Somebody's drownded. That's it, said Huck. They done that last summer when Bill Turner got drownded.

GREENE: But that is not Mark Twain. It is actually this guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")

OFFERMAN: (As Ron Swanson) Wait. Wait. I worry what you just heard was, give me a lot of bacon and eggs. What I said was, give me all the bacon and eggs you have.

GREENE: Yeah, Nick Offerman, the actor, the one who played Ron Swanson on "Parks And Recreation" - it turns out Offerman is a huge Mark Twain fan, a Twainiac (ph), as he calls himself. And so being the voice of Twain on audiobooks has been a pretty cool side gig for him.

OFFERMAN: If I do nothing but read his words out loud for people for the rest of my career, I'll be happy.

GREENE: He sure seemed pretty happy recently, working on an audio project that explores a feast that was once imagined by the author. Twain put together this dream menu of American dishes he wanted to feast on when he returned from Europe. Offerman and a team tried to recreate that feast. To do the preparations, they pulled a food truck up outside Twain's historic home in Connecticut, and then they all sat down inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "TWAIN'S FEAST: SEARCHING FOR AMERICA'S LOST FOODS IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF SAMUEL CLEMENS")

OFFERMAN: A small private affair with a few good friends, an eight-course meal to bring Twain's fantasy - and all the surprising revelations and awkward truths baked into it - to life.

GREENE: Yeah, this wasn't just a feast. Offerman and his crew were using the dishes Twain wrote about to open doors and explore American life and culture in Twain's time and in ours. The first course they tried - prairie chicken. The trouble was they went hunting in Kansas, and they just couldn't find any prairie chickens, which alone was telling.

OFFERMAN: In the case of the prairie chicken and a couple of the other items, you get to go talk to the people who still live out, you know, in the middle of nowhere, as they say. And they're still in touch with the fact that you can or can't find a pheasant or a quail or a prairie chicken.

GREENE: Well - and the fact that you can't find a prairie chicken, I mean, says so much about how we've developed our rural lands in this country. You get into that. You talk about Twain writing about Lake Tahoe and how it was crystal clear. And it's not anymore. I mean, it just feels like the lost nature in our land comes up over and over again. Like, is there something you lament about that?

OFFERMAN: Yeah. And it's always easy to look back and create a sense of sadness or regret. But you know, that's what we human beings have been doing to the planet since we started civilizing it. I think it's more important to recognize what we're doing so we can put the brakes on for whatever the next prairie chicken is that we're in danger of eradicating.

GREENE: What do you think is the next prairie chicken?

OFFERMAN: Great question. I hope it's not the Irish...

GREENE: (Laughter).

OFFERMAN: ...Because I'm mostly Irish.

GREENE: OK.

OFFERMAN: And we work hard. I mean, we have our value.

GREENE: (Laughter) I want to bring up a more contentious menu item - the raccoon. I mean, first, how did it taste?

OFFERMAN: Well, in chef's defense, he got a pretty sorry (laughter) hunk of raccoon meat. I think freezer...

GREENE: (Laughter) The way you flame (ph) the distributor (laughter).

OFFERMAN: Well, apparently, freezer burn was the culprit. But then he wrapped it in a delicious collar of wagyu beef, and so it was incredibly enjoyable.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Sounds like a lot was enjoyable about this dish other than the raccoon meat.

OFFERMAN: Yeah, it wrapped in pleasure.

GREENE: Well, as part of exploring this dish, your producer Todd Whitney, who's African-American, he went to visit the annual Coon Supper in Gillett, Ark. And it just becomes clear how there are layers of racist history here in just using this terminology.

OFFERMAN: Sure.

GREENE: I guess I mean - let me just ask first, like, was it hard to even use this term, coon, as you were putting this project together?

OFFERMAN: Well, it's one of those weird words where - that, you know, has at least a couple of entendres. And so you know, when you're in certain areas, it's quite common to say coon hunting or, you know, our dog treed a coon. It's simply the slang for raccoon. And much like, you know, Twain's use of the N-word in some of his books has made the news. I don't know if you've heard about that (laughter). But...

GREENE: Well, Twain used the term coon - I mean, writing at a time when it was widely used. What do you tell people, though, who, you know, know of him and some of the racist language he used and would say - why do I want to read words like coon? Why would I want to listen to a description of sitting down at a dinner table having raccoon and exploring something so terrible?

OFFERMAN: You know, it's not that far in our past. And I think there are still pockets of the country where it's still prevalent and those attitudes are still prevalent. And it's a shameful side that, you know, we're slowly trying to root out. But certainly, Mark Twain lived at a time where, you know, that was absolutely common. And so I think his exposure of that lifestyle and that culture probably was very helpful in exposing those attitudes and helping us to say - oh, people are really like that; we need to fix that.

GREENE: You reflected on tape, saying that you really do feel a connection to him. What is the connection?

OFFERMAN: Well, in reading Twain and sort of interpreting his work, I've always felt like he had a similar sensibility. He was able to observe the fast-paced world flying around him, succumbing to fashion and trend in a rather foolish manner, as we do, with our dabbing and our flossing...

GREENE: (Laughter).

OFFERMAN: ...And you know - and to say, well, I'll weigh in on that if you folks care (laughter) to give me a minute. I mean, to sit there and read his writing out loud and get paid for that (laughter) - it feels just like Tom Sawyer tricking people into whitewashing the fence for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RABBIT'S "MILO'S DANCE (INSTRUMENTAL)")

GREENE: Wow.

GREENE: That was the actor Nick Offerman. He worked on this project with author Andrew Beahrs to bring Beahrs' book to life. The book's called "Twain's Feast: Searching For America's Lost Foods In The Footsteps Of Samuel Clemens." Clemens, of course, is Twain's real name. That project is available exclusively through Audible.

Story source: NPR