Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book Review: Fannie's Last Supper

Title: Fannie's Last Supper: Two Years, Twelve Courses, and Creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook
Author: Chris Kimball
Themes: Food, Victoriana, Boston, Entertaining, Food History

Plot: 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--including rissoles, Lobster à l'Américaine, Roast Goose with Chestnut Stuffing and Jus, and Mandarin Cake--with all the inherent difficulties of sourcing unusual animal parts and mastering many now-forgotten techniques, including regulating the heat on a coal cookstove and boiling a calf's head without its turning to mush, all sans food processor or oven thermometer. 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. A culinary thriller. it offers a fresh look at something that most of us take for granted--the American table.

My Thoughts: I received this book from Early Reviewers, but didn't really know what to expect-a memoir? A cookbook? Or something more akin to "Julie and Julia?" While I wasn't sure in the first few "courses" I decided I really enjoyed the style of Kimball's book by the time he discussed "brain balls" and making gelatin from boiled calves' feet. This is a combination food history, cookbook, as well as a brief telling of a very grand 12 course feast.

Kimball decides to prepare a 12 course Victorian (well, American circa 1880s) feast in his vintage Boston house on traditional coal/wood burning ovens. Naturally, such a feat required two years of prep in which recipes are tried, methods are discussed, a "cast" is assembled, and appropriate dinnerware/silverware is found. But this makes up only about a third of the book. Another third is entirely a history of food, etiquette, science, technology, and cooking patterns in American (mostly Boston) homes in the late nineteenth century. The final third is made up of a select few handpicked recipes. The book is divided into courses, beginning with the punch served pre-dinner and ending with wine and cheese. While it may sound disjointed and perhaps a little frivolous and self-indulgent I found this book very enjoyable, and Kimball reflects on some serious issues as well as the frivolous.

As a lover of history, of food, of cookbooks, and of making as much as possible from scratch-I found this to be an entertaining as well as educational book. I closed the book far more excited then when I cracked it open.

Recommendation: While I loved this book, I wouldn't recommend it to everyone. But, if you love food, cooking, the nineteenth century, entertaining, or just unusually memoirs I think Fannie's Last Supper worth checking out.

Similar Reads: While I haven't read either, Julie & Julia by Julie Powell and My Life in France by Julia Child both sound like similar reads. Surprisingly, I have not read anything similar to this before!

Kimball, Chris. Fannie's Last Supper: Two Years, Twelve Courses, and Creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook. New York: Hyperion, 2010.

No comments:

Post a Comment