Sunday, November 21, 2010

Review: Fannie's Last Supper

Chris Kimball decided that it was a good idea to try and recreate a twelve-course Victorian dinner party. He devoted several years of his life to this project, and this book is the story of how he did it. As his manual Kimball took the most popular of late-nineteenth century cookbooks, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. And the meal is quite a production: multi-tier jellies, complicated fried artichokes, old world punch. Many of the dishes are also disgusting to the modern palate: brain balls in soup, gelatin made out of calves' hooves. Readers should be aware that the description of some of these dishes is truly disgusting, but in a train-wreck-can't-look-away way. To add to the "authenticity" of the meal, Kimball chose to create the meal on a Victorian-era coal stove, a practice which caused its own problems, including impossible temperature regulation, and a kitchen so warm that one of the chef's pants melted.

The book intersperses the history of Farmer and Victorian cooking with Kimball's own efforts to recreate a Victorian meal. Each chapter is organized around one of the courses, but the historical information often bears little relevance to the particular course at hand. Some chapters are better at establishing this relevancy than others.

More of an issue for me was the fact that I just could not get into the purpose of this project. I couldn't help but thinking throughout that this was a lot of money wasted for no particular purpose. Kimball produced a PBS documentary on his Victorian dinner as well, and I have to wonder if this was a project better suited to film than to a book. I'll probably seek out the documentary. Perhaps that will change my impression that this project marks a case of privileged foodies getting together to play Victorian gentry.

Chris Kimball, Fannie's Last Supper: Re-Creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook (Hyperion, 2010) ISBN: 1401323227

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