In the mid-1990s, Chris Kimball moved into an 1859 Victorian townhouse on the South End of Boston and, as he became accustomed to the quirks and peculiarities of the house and neighborhood, he began to wonder what it was like to live and cook in that era. In particular, he became fascinated with Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. Published in 1896, it was the best-selling cookbook of its age—full of odd, long-forgotten ingredients, fascinating details about how the recipes were concocted, and some truly amazing dishes (as well as some awful ones). In Fannie’s Last Supper, Kimball describes the experience of re-creating one of Fannie Farmer’s amazing menus: a twelve-course Christmas dinner that she served at the end of the century. Kimball immersed himself in composing twenty different recipes with all the inherent difficulties of sourcing unusual animal parts and mastering many now-forgotten techniques. Kimball’s research leads to many hilarious scenes, bizarre tastings, and an incredible armchair experience for any reader interested in food and the Victorian era. Fannie’s Last Supper includes the dishes from the dinner and revised and updated recipes from The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book
Well, this little book was quite the culinary education! For fans of all things Victoriana, this one definitely needs to be in your library. So much fun and a truly fascinating history lesson, not only in the culinary arts but also regarding the town of Boston itself (a place I've never been to, but I have read a good deal of really amazing history from the area).
Researching history is a terrific way to cure oneself of taking anything for granted. ~~Chris Kimball
Kimball, host of the public television series America's Test Kitchen, bought an 1859 townhouse in Boston and while renovating it, became fascinated with learning what life in his neighborhood might have been like in the late 1800s. He happened to come across an early printing of The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, complete with a Victorian Christmas Dinner menu created by Fannie Farmer. Kimball, (perhaps extra inspired after learning that his townhouse was actually just blocks away from the home Fannie Farmer lived in while writing her cookbook) with the help of his Test Kitchen kitchen director, Erin McMurrer and a respectably-sized kitchen staff, set out to recreate this menu -- outfitting his townhouse with an era-appropriate wood stove and dedicating himself to recreating these Victorian recipes, in the process trying to learn long-forgotten Victorian cooking techniques. The results he describes are a combination of laugh-out-loud hilarious, cringe inducing, and plain awe-inspiring that they pulled it off!
The degree of civilization is often measured by its cuisine. ~~ Fannie Farmer
I'd say this will be a great read for fans of "How It's Made" documentary-style tv shows. For those who want to give Kimball's experiment a go, he includes recipes of what he and his team made for the dinner, and the reader benefits from their trial and error! The recipes are revisions of what Fannie Farmer wrote out, with the parts that weren't so tasty turned around for modern palates.
There are other parts of this book I made note of, but I think it will be easier to lay out in my video discussion, so stay tuned for that post :-)
**FYI for readers: Just out of curiosity, I tried the website that goes along with this book, which Kimball directs the reader to a number of times (where there is suppose to be extra recipes not in the book)... yeah, it doesn't look like that URL works any longer. Also, there is a PBS documentary that was made to go along with this book but I can't seem to find any place to view it, either online or as a DVD to purchase (only promo clips, as far as I can find), so if anyone comes across a link, let me know because I'd be curious to see this show!