Unless you are in the know about historic American cuisine, the name Fannie may not mean much. If you are aware of Fannie Farmer’s famous cookbook, you likely know that she compiled hundreds of recipes and housework tips for women and servants in the late 19th century offering tips on how to make the best gelatin salad and cream soups. What I am about to tell you is the real story of Fannie Farmer.
A few months ago I picked up dozens of books at the Indy Library Sale, one of which was Fannie’s Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook by Chris Kimball, host of America’s Test Kitchen on PBS. At first I wasn’t entirely sure of what I was purchasing, but the tagline was intriguing enough to get me to pay a whopping 50 cents for the pre-owned hardback copy. I had no idea how much history, cooking and social science I was about to learn and fall in love with.
Kimball begins by telling the story of moving to Boston with his family where he acquires a large Victorian home and begins to investigate the history surrounding him. No doubt the purchase of his home and the area he was in gave him the curiosity necessary for this project, along with his current interest in food in a similar manner to mine.
Those who watch America’s Test Kitchen can associate Kimball’s desire to test and question everything about food and understand why it made so much sense for him to write this book. He approaches everything not with fear but with curiosity – could he make gelatin out of calf’s feet like Fannie did? Could he saddle a leg of venison with salt pork and achieve similar results? These questions prompted Kimball to gather a dedicated team of culinary professionals and recreate a 12 course Victorian meal as described in Fannie Farmer’s cookbook.
A 12 course meal seems daunting enough to average and above average cooks, let alone doing so with ingredients and appliances from the era that are foreign to the 21st century. With each page turn, my curiosity grew with Kimball’s.
Kimball words transported me to Boston in the 19th century where I learned not only of what foods people liked to eat but why. Imagine that the modern 21st century conveniences were unavailable to you – refrigeration, electricity, processed and packaged foods. It would create a dramatic impact on what you liked to eat because you were limited to the tools and ingredients at hand. However, Fannie built a world that seemed limitless in the pages of her cookbook, and it was that similar enthusiasm and zest for cooking that brought Kimball to test her tips and techniques.
Could you imagine doing all of your shopping just from the purveyors that came to your door? Door-to-door salesman were prevalent, allowing a busy housewife or cook to never leave the house as vinegars, whiskeys, fish, breads and jams were brought to their door for browsing and purchasing. Markets were slowly starting to gain popularity, though this led to the arrival of regulations on selling foods in public areas, which in turn meant government intrusion into the lives of people who fled just that. America was a land of opportunity, and Bostonians wanted their unregulated commerce.
Cultural and social norms shaped the new American dinner table. While removed from their aristocratic counterparts in Britain, Bostonians still held some high social traditions that were not to be contested. Kitchens were often located far from the dining areas in the Boston home, sometimes even on a different floor. Food was to be prepared but not seen by those dining, instead served by a butler or maid. Therefore you can see how a fascination in the culinary arts was not typical for a middle or upper class individual due to their removal from food and cooking. It was the job of the staff of the home to make food appear seemingly out of nowhere – out of sight, out of mind. If you are a Downtown Abbey addict like myself, you know that in just a few short years, the idea of having a staff to take care of the home quickly diminishes due to people’s revolutions, war, politics and our growing sense to find our identity.
What does Fannie Farmer have to do with all of this? It was her cookbook, or rather the cookbook of the Boston Cooking School where she worked, that we begin to learn of Fannie. She helped many housewives learn to cook and take care of the home in proper ways of the time. Here we learn of Kimball’s desire to research and test her recipes.
Through multiple tests, Kimball begins to dissect Fannie’s recipes bit by bit. Where would one purchase calf’s feet to create homemade gelatin? What about finding a calf’s head for mock turtle soup? How do you cook with a coal stove top and control the level of heat needed to fry pastries? All of this was fascinating to me as I find myself in Kimball’s test kitchen, reading each and every word with a desire to make all of these dishes myself.
In some ways Fannie’s efforts are with merit, and in other’s Kimball is less hopeful of the result. While we learn that Fannie was definitely just as much a marketer (if not more so) than she was a culinary idol, there were always good intentions at bay. For the time, culinary science was at a high point. Fannie is credited to the use of measurements in recipes, arguably one of the most important moments in the history of home cooking. It was the budding science and technology of the era that gave women so many opportunities to remove themselves from the chains of home life to creative expression. No longer was it necessary to spend 90% of the day cooking and preparing food. Electricity, refrigeration and gas stoves were not perfected but provided enough of a change that women found themselves with additional time to do as they please.
A 12 COURSE VICTORIAN DINNER
Throughout the book, Kimball reminds us of the path he has taken – to reproduce a 12 course Victorian meal similar to that of what Fannie would have served at the time. It contained a variety of cold and hot soups and salads, vegetables and meat dishes, wines, cheeses, punches, desserts, crackers and cheese. Each dish was dissected from origin to purchasing, preparing and storage, and serving. Kimball left no question and curiosity unanswered as he tests each dish.
What I loved most about this book was reading about his preparation failures. It’s not that I did not want him to succeed – I most certainly did – but I enjoyed reading how difficult and time consuming this journey was. As someone with similar culinary ambitions to learn and know as much as possible, it felt good to know I wasn’t the only one to experience failure or unrealistic expectations. Even with a staff and a budget, Kimball was often lost in translation of what Fannie wrote and what was actually happening in the kitchen.
In the end, the two years of preparing for the meal was met with a successful (albeit long) dinner, and shared in the middle of the book are a few images of the dishes and the people who prepared and ate them.
With regards of leaving you some suspense if you decide to read the book, I’ll stop myself before 1240 words becomes 2500. Whether you have an interest in late 19th century Boston or you want to learn about where and why we eat what we eat today, Kimball’s book is full of interesting culinary tidbits that anyone with tastebuds can enjoy.