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Fannie's Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook Hardcover – October 5, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Kimball, founder of Cook's Illustrated and host of the PBS series America's Test Kitchen, spent more than two years of "research, recipe testing, and intense planning" in order to host a Victorian dinner based on the recipes of Fannie Farmer, author of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, which was first published in 1896. Kimball is as exhaustive in his research as he is in one of his own test recipes for Cook's Illustrated, and fans of his work will appreciate his attention to even the smallest morsel of information. Kimball is off on a culinary and historical adventure as he literally traces Fannie Farmer's steps around Boston at the turn of the century, regaling the reader with a history of Boston, observations of the Victorian character, manner of dress, and cooking implements and appliances available. In the meantime, his own team has been assembled and they are methodically testing recipes and ingredients in Kimball's 1859 red-brick Boston bowfront. All this work culminates in a foodie's dream dinner party, complete with Victorian plate settings, an all-star guest list, and 12 courses you won't find in any restaurant today. A must-read for history buffs, home cooks, and professional chefs alike.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Chris Kimball founded Cook's Magazine in 1980; it has grown to a paid circulation of 1,000,000. He hosts America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Country, which are the top-rated cooking shows on public television, reaching 2 million viewers per week in over 94% of American households. Kimball is a regular contributor to both the Today Show and the CBS Early Show. He has been written up in most major newspapers, many national magazines including The New Yorker and Time, and regularly contributes to NPR's Morning Edition, including doing a regular Thanksgiving segment. He will also host a public radio show on cooking starting in the fall of 2010.
Top customer reviews
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.
This book was a fun read, but not as much fun as I'd hoped. I cannot recommend it in terms of the history; it's disjointed at the best. And it does seem odd that Kimball seems to have little respect for Fannie Farmer and her heritage. From my own reading, she's something of a mixed bag. If she did not originate the idea of level consistent measures (which is now being expanded in baking, by weighing rather than volume measurements for the ingredients) rather than "a sufficiency" of one thing, "enough" of another and- if they were really precise "a knob of butter the size of a walnut"- she certainly did much to popularize it!
The thing is, though- Farmer was not especially into epicurean feasts, and that's what Kimball wanted, so they were at odds from the beginning. Farmer's goal was to help everyone who needed to cook have reliable and wholesome recipes that could put a meal on the table- often without any servants at all (note that the dinner described used a full Edwardian kitchen's worth, plus servers). Like many of its prede4cessor cookbooks, hers was eminently practical- and while they might include recipes like sparrows stuff with lark's tongues, the focus was earlier and was still practical cooking for a "small" household.
So the theme of the book in theory and in practice were not especially coherent.
Still- it was a fun read, and I do want to try out a few of the recipes- though note that they are MUCH more complex than the ones in the "Tom Jones" cookbook I reviewed recently, which also was a lot more solid in its history.
Using a historical range in the present is definitely interesting. Seeing the number of minions that was necessary to make such a feast was illuminating! But if you're interested in the historical... well, That "Tom Jones" cookbook was excellent, and the "Victorian Home" book gave avery broad context that let one see what Fannie Farmer was trying to address.
Not really a history, nor a historical cookbook, but I found it fascinating. There are better books, though, for those of us interested in the history of food and cooking.