Mark Twain Speaks?

I was discussing with my friend Andy the banjo-playing masonic assassin how pop culture references and jokes were nothing new, and how difficult it can be to understand stories and dialogue that use a lot of it, when I mentioned that Samuel Clemens’s pseudonym itself was a gag. It’s not arcane knowledge. Mark Twain is a riverboat nautical term for depth. They’d lower a knotted rope with a weight to measure depth, and call out how many knots went under, so the riverboat captain wouldn’t scrape bottom. “Mark one, mark twain, mark three…”

It was a cute nod to his past as a riverboat captain that would elicit a chuckle from those familiar with steamboats, and to everyone else, it was just a nice, clean and respectable name. Much better than Samuel Clemens, which sounds like Delirium Tremens.

There’s been a rediscovery of Thomas Edison’s footage of Mark Twain at his Connecticut home in 1909, which made me go looking for any audio recordings of Mr. Twain. Recordings existed, once. He dictated four wax cylinders of a novel, to experiment and see if he could write that way. He didn’t like it. Perhaps they were destroyed. A few others are mentioned, but no recordings are known to exist. The closest we get is a friend of Twain’s, a gifted mimic and impersonator, who recorded his imitation of Twain reading “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

NYC Restaurant Week at Delmonico’s

This week and the next are Restaurant Week in New York. Dozens of popular restaurants are offering 3-course dinners for $35 per person, and lunches for $20 or so. Last year we opted for the excellent One if by Land, Two if by Sea, and followed it up with a tasting with wines shortly after- that’s the “catch,” really; after your bargain dinner you’ll be back dropping $400 on a gastronomic gallivant through their menu.

Delmonico’s is a historic restaurant that opened in the Financial district in 1837; they claim to have invented Lobster Newberg, Chicken à la King, Baked Alaska, Eggs Benedict, and of course, the Delmonico cut of steak. All have faded into culinary history but are still quite tasty if on the rich side, unless you’re getting your Chicken à la King out of a can, which is possible these days. Their clientele included such luminaries as Mark Twain, “Diamond” Jim Brady and Lillian Russell, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Teddy Roosevelt and Nikola Tesla. Several dining rooms are named after them, and the place looks as it should- dark, elegant, with classic woods and papers, unassuming tables and white linen. Dining with history.

Nowadays it’s more of a power broker haven than one for the cognoscenti, stuck on the corner of Beaver Street between William and South William, in the jumbled tip of old Manhattan. The building resembles the Flatiron in ways, and speaks of old New York. They may not be inventing the dishes bound to become future classics anymore, but they still run a fine kitchen of American standards, and still have a few cards up their sleeve.

They give you a good tease with their Restaurant Week menu; the choices aren’t quite what you’d want, but we got a deal of a meal. We choose the tuna carpaccio and gazpacho appetizers. The soup was not cold, but rather lukewarm, tangy and given just a taste of lump crab and avocado cream. It had a rich tomato base flavor that didn’t overwhelm the crab. My tuna was a delicate pink sliver that resembled hamachi and had a similar sweet flavor, well paired with some bitter greens. The thin cut of Parmesan cheese was forgettable, but I’m a cheese snob and expect reggiano to punch me in the face with flavor. This was mild enough not to stomp over the delicate tuna.

Second course, I’m afraid we both opted for the 8 ounce tenderloin; mine rare, hers medium well, which was more like medium rare. Sometimes the kitchen knows what’s good for you. Firecracker ate her steak and enjoyed it anyway. Mine was a thicker baseball cut while hers was more of a standard tenderloin. Both had a decent crust and a rich beefy flavor, from good marbling. I would definitely try a full Delmonico sometime. It sat atop a rich slather of buttery garlic mashed potatoes, with nary a green in sight. Typical steakhouse- if you want to waste time on vegetables, get it à la carte.

Dessert is what really shined; the chocolate mousse and the caramel custard were both quite delicious. The caramel on my flan-like dessert had smooth buttery notes and great texture, though the custard was a bit eggy. Even after the tasty steak, it won over my tastebuds. Firecracker’s mousse cake was quite good, with the rich chocolate on top of layers of smooth raspberry cream and milder chocolate cake. It was a bit difficult to eat easily, collapsing when you tried for all the layers, but it was worth the trouble.

Add two strong tonics- one gin and one vodka- and our bill came to $120 with a 20% tip. Not a bad deal for two 8oz filets at a fine dining establishment these days. If you love steak, you’ve got another week to try Delmonico’s at a bargain price. Opentable will reserve seats for you free of charge, and around the corner on Pearl Street you can grab a brew at Ulysses, an Irish pub, if that’s more your speed. They’ve got a bargain of their own- $95 for 2 lobster tails, 12 shrimp cocktail, and 20 each of clams and oysters for their raw seafood tower. But that’s for next time. It’s too bad Delmonico’s couldn’t put a Lilliputian Lobster Newberg cup in the appetizer column and a bit of Baked Alaska for dessert; though I suppose that’s what they want you to come back for.

The Shaka vs. the Shocker, and the Southernmost Bar in the U.S.

We like extremes here in America. The biggest ball of twine (Cawker, KS). The most expensive hamburger (The Burger Royale at DB Bistro Moderne, NYC). The biggest asshole (goatse guy). So when we learned that the Southernest Bar in the United States was on the island of Hawai’i, we had to trek there when we visited.

The shaka sign

The bar is called Shaka’s, named after the “hang loose” Hawaiian hand sign. It resides in the small town of Na’ahelu, which is between Volcanoes National Park and the southernmost tip of the island, which is occupied mostly by wind farms and a few ranches. If you take the drive down to Shaka’s, there are a few things to see on the way. For one, Highway 11 passes through miles of old lava fields, so it looks like you’re driving through a desolate wasteland. The a’a lava, sharp and unweathered, stretches on one side of the highway to the sea, and to the base of Mauna Loa on the other.

That’s the shocker, not the shaka!

They use the terms mauka and makai to differentiate between “toward the mountains” and “toward the ocean.” Especially on the big island, where there is a ring around the shore and only a few roads inland, like the infamous Saddle Road between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, north and south have little meaning. All the roads are toward one town or another. On the way down, we passed the Punalu’u Black Sand beach, so I swung a sharp left in the Jeep and drove on down. Past a windy golf course, and dotted with tents with local families chilling andd grilling, this is how you enjoy the beach on the windy side of the island.

Black sand beach

Another 20 minutes down the road or so and you reach Na’ahelu. Shaka’s is past the gas station and the post office, with parking in front and out back. It’s hard to miss the big blue building. We dropped in for some Kona brews and burgers. Firecracker had a burger smothered with mushroom gravy and sweet Maui onions, with some delicious fried potato wedges on the side. They call them hash browns, so get them instead of the fries. I had a South Seas fish sandwich with mahi and light tangy tartar sauce. It was fresh and delicious. The beer was good too- I had a few Kona Lavaman Red Ales. Service was a little slow, even for the islands- he apologized for being short on staff- but everything was tasty and we didn’t wait too long.

No lighthouse, just a big reflecting sign

So they are worth a stop, even if you don’t want to say that you’ve had a beer at the Southernmost Bar in the U.S., for their good food and selection. If you’ve come this far, you might as well drive another 12 miles to South Point, the wave-bashed rocky beach that is the most southerly spot on the isle. You can see the stark contrast between the calm, Kona side of the island and the windy Hilo side, as the waves crash nonstop to your left, and the seas stand still to your right.


The beaches were covered with locals fishing, but we didn’t see anyone catch anything. A few miles down a 4×4 road, and there’s a Green Sand beach, but we didn’t have a lot of time or good directions to it. It gives us a reason to come back, other than the island’s beauty and the friendliness of the people. Next time I want to stay in Kona, so Firecracker can go horseback riding with the paniolos, and I can drive to the top of Mauna Kea. Or sit at the Kona Brewing Company having some more of their excellent Wailua wheat and Pipeline porter.

51 years ago there was a tree here.

On the way back we stopped at the spot where Mark Twain planted a monkeypod tree in the 1860’s. It stood until 1957, when a typhoon uprooted it. I’m still reading his Letters from Hawaii; it’s good, but slow going. He was still young and hadn’t gotten his steam yet. I imagine he’d have commented on the most Southerly Commode in the U.S., which Firecracker and I did make use of. We were most thankful that the heavy winds didn’t knock it over.

Most Southerly Shitters in the States

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You are here.

The white dot by the black square is that reflective sign.

Diamond Head Crater

Firecracker and I have two hobbies that the other doesn’t enjoy much. Mine is hiking; hers is horseback riding. I like riding, I’m just not any good at it. Hiking is a lot easier, it just takes conditioning so your feet and legs can handle climbing rocky trails for hours. Riding requires a similar commitment, but usually costs $60 or more, so that’s my excuse.

The crater from near the rim.

Diamond Head is a crater visible from Waikiki and surroundings on Oahu. It’s also the “Black Mountain” on Lost. It got its name from British soldiers who mistook calcite crystals for diamonds. Mark Twain got to ride around it on horseback when he visited the islands, but since then it’s been a military installation and now a park, so no more horses. It’s a 271-step hike that gains 560 feet in elevation, which is challenging on a hot and sunny day.


The stairs are real concrete stairs, not stones like the “Stairway to Heaven” part of the Appalachian Trail that Darth Milk and I have climbed. It’s kind of cool, getting to climb all over an abandoned military site, but it’s less enjoyable as a hike because you’re fenced away from nature.

The tunnel to the trailhead.

The hike to the top is worth it, with spectacular views of Waikiki. At the top, you climb out of a camouflaged bunker to the viewing spot. With the Japanese tourists everywhere, it reminded me a little of clearing the bunkers in The Thin Red Line.

Abandoned bunker sites are the same everywhere- graffitized.

Hawaii Horror: Dan Simmons- Fires of Eden

I decided to read a book gathering dust on my shelf in preparation for my Hawaii trip with Firecracker this week. About 8 years ago a friend read this book called Fires of Eden, a horror novel, and gave the paperback to me. He liked the bits about young Mark Twain in it. So I picked up Twain’s Letters from Hawaii, which is what the book bases the Twain parts on. That also sat gathering dust for years.

Anyone who knows me well has seen my towering Steelcase bookshelves stacked three deep with collected books that I’ve yet to read. I love reading, but I love books more. I estimate I’ve read 15% of the books I own, which would be great if I were trapped on a deserted island, or Burgess Meredith after nuclear apocalypse, (*crunch* My glasses! Oh the irony!) but I have a million other distractions keeping me from reading, like horrible 80’s movies, beer fests, Firecracker’s social engagements, and a stack of magazines by the crapper that keeps me from reading fine literature in there.

Fires of Eden was a bit of a letdown after 10 years of waiting, but it’s a serviceable thriller and quite intriguing if you’re at all interested in Hawaiian mythology and history. The story involves billionaire developer Byron Trumbo, a Trump-alike trying to unload a super-luxury resort on the south Kona coast of Hawaii to Japanese investors to recharge his crumbling empire. He’s irascible and oily, and is a lot of fun if you imagine him played by J.K. Simmons in his Jonah Jameson role from the Spider-Man movies.

Douchey developer, cliché villain #92

Thankfully there are other characters, like spunky Eleanor Perry, an Illinois schoolteacher visiting the area because she’s digging through her aunt’s diary from 1860, when Aunt Kidder met Mark Twain (then Samuel Clemens) on an adventure to the islands. And Cordie Stumpf, a role Kathy Bates was born to play- the wife of a garbage magnate who won a trip there and has a lot of tricks up her sleeve next to the arm flab. She’s got the best lines and is full of surprises.

Scarier than anything in the book

From page one, we are introduced to the creepy gods and spirits of the Hawaiians, like the dog , who has human teeth, and Kamapua’a the rapacious hog. My fave was the son of Ukupanipo, the shark god, who had a hump on his back that opens into a shark mouth. The goddess Pele, controller of fire who lives within the volcano with her name, and other spirits like the Marchers of the Night, the spirits of Hawaiian warriors who walk through the jungle, are also mentioned.

The story bounces back and forth from the diary, where Mark Twain and Aunt Kidder explore the island of Hawai’i and encounter these same hungry spirits, and the modern day, where the Mauna Pele resort has disturbed the old gods. Simmons doesn’t go for the old “Indian burial ground” plot device, and Cordie Stumpf even mentions that she saw that in Poltergeist. The gods have their own agendas, and they might take a bite out of you if you get in their way.

The story is leavened with good humor thanks to Cordie and Trumbo. It actually doesn’t have enough modern-day horror to keep a solid grip of suspense, though. The old story with Mark Twain and Aunt Kidder is much more interesting, and the tension there is palpable. In the modern-day parts, you can pick the victims easily and you never really feel that anyone you like is in real danger, except for one part where they encounter the shark god while on a kayak. On the other hand, it’s a quick and amusing read that informs you well about Hawaiian history and mythology.

Unfortunately some of the cool stuff Dan Simmons mentions, such as the rocks on Oahu that are believed to be the corpse of the dog Kū, are unknown to Google. The footprints of Koeau’s soldiers left in the volcanic mud after they were killed by poison gases off Mount Pele, are in the park near where we’ll be staying on the big island. So maybe we’ll go see them. And try not to be devoured by humpbacked sharkmen.