I’m a big fan of America’s Test Kitchen, and I love reading about food and history, so I was really looking forward to reading Fannie’s Last Supper by its host and founder, Christopher Kimball.The book’s tagline is “Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook”, and is (purportedly) about recreating an elaborate dinner party from Victorian-era Boston, based on the recipes of Fannie Farmer, a famous cooking teacher and businesswoman from the time.
About the title – although Kimball was certainly inspired by his discovery of Fannie Farmer’s cookbook, I would not go as far as to say his meal was a recreation. He does not seem to respect Farmer as a cook or as a person, which makes for odd reading. His reactions to exact recreations of her dishes range from “inedible” to “truly horrible” to “rather uninspired” to “second rate.” (There is the occasional “good”, but it is rare.) This means that pretty much all of the recipes were changed quite a bit. A few of the recipes were even sourced entirely from other books, after Farmer was deemed unsatisfactory. This is all fine, but it seemed like false advertising.
The book is peppered with fascinating facts and insights into the world of the 19th century cook. The industrial revolution was changing cooking at an extremely rapid rate, plus domestic servants were no longer common. Kimball likens it to a music aficionado in the late 1990s (p. 193):
who used a turntable for his LP collection while relying on a large group of CDs and then a smattering of digital downloads from iTunes on his MP3 player.
I loved that description (although, what about cassette tapes? that’s what I used in the 90s) – I think it’s a great analogy.
I think the structure of the book could have been easier to read – part of it deals with the evolution in cooking methods and ingredients in the US, some of it is about how Boston’s food culture and how that changed (including random little details like the price of gelatin), some of it is about Fannie Farmer’s life, and then there’s the story of Kimball’s journey to making this dinner, testing recipes, finding silverware, etc. The trouble is that each chapter contains a bit of everything. I think it would’ve showcased the material far better if it had been better structured, although it is still really interesting.
I also appreciated a lot of the trouble that they went to to make the dinner accurate – mock turtle soup using calf-brains, and making gelatin from calf-feet stand out. It sounded like a horrendous amount of work.
Apparently PBS did a special to accompany the book (or vice versa), also called Fannie’s Last Supper. Here is the trailer for it. I really want to watch it, but I’m not sure how it can be obtained.
This is book 10 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.
- “Two Lives” by Vikram Seth
- “Ringworld” by Larry Niven