Fannie’s Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook, by Chris Kimball (2010).
All right. I know that I have ground rules for this project, like only counting non-fiction that comes off the shelves of my local public library and browsing an entire decade before I chose three different books to consider reading. But. When I saw this one in the new books section, I knew I had to read it. After all, it combines cooking, archaic technology, and Victorian mores. Plus, I figured it would help satisfy my long-standing curiosity about how women actually cooked from some of those old cookbooks with their vague instructions and bizarre ingredients.
On that level, this book does not disappoint. In it, Kimball (founder of Cook’s Illustrated) gets more than a bit obsessed with re-creating a gala feast from the 1896 cookbook of Victorian cooking instructor Fannie Farmer. From making homemade gelatin out of calf’s feet to cooking on a massive cast-iron stove, the book details the trials of cooking from 19th century recipes. Some of the best stories are about dealing with no-longer-used ingredients, like trying to find a calf’s head for the stock for mock turtle soup. Kimball and his crew obsessively test and re-test recipes, figuring out as they go how to prepare and handle them. For example, it turns out (not to get too graphic, here) that it’s important to use a stiff brush to clean out the calf’s nostrils before adding the head to the pot.
Just as your stomach starts to settle from the calf’s head incident, though, Kimball’s off and running on another subject, or two, or three: the gentrification of his neighborhood in Boston, how to regulate the temperature of a coal oven converted to wood, the inferiority of Fannie Farmer’s recipes (he doesn’t think much of her as a cook), the layout of the parlor in his 1850s Victorian, the history of markets in Boston, the appropriate half-dozen garnishes for the jelly (molded gelatin) course, the history of social clubs and Boston (and Kimball’s membership in one), the kerfuffle caused by a “naughty” ice sculpture center piece (it’s a bare-breasted mermaid, hardly a shocker), how to fry dozens of tiny pastries to perfection (hint: it involves not crowding the pan, a tip that translates to frying 2 or 3 at a time, which requires at least three pans at once in order to provide hot crispy appetizers simultaneously to the dozen Very Important Guests who attend the party).
If this all sounds like a hodgepodge of cooking adventure, Boston history, and self-promotion tinged with a healthy dose of elitism, well, that’s a pretty accurate description of the book. It’s definitely worth a read, but best digested in small bites.