Christopher Kimball, whom I know well from my subscription to Cook’s Illustrated, finds an old cookbook in an older house and spends two years translating and testing recipes to put on a Victorian spread for twelve (using a coal stove, no less, which I find by far and away the most horrific part of the process). Along the way, Fannie’s Last Supper treats us to a history of Boston by way of fresh oysters and calf’s foot jelly, in Fannie Farmer’s kitchen.
I love The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, it is my go-to cookbook whenever I pull something unidentifiable out of the freezer and need a recipe to put it in. I am seldom skunked by one of the recipes therein. So I was amazed to discover that Fannie was more of a marketer than a cook, but if she inspired my favorite cookbook, so what?
I would have preferred more about the preparation of the food and less of the history of Boston markets in this book, but there are wonderful observations and nuggets about Victorian dining habits that make the book well worthwhile:
“Victorians were also less apt to invite friends over for dinner. Dining in someone else’s home was an intensely personal event, and an invitation was the “highest form of social compliment.“”
“The essence of table etiquette in Victorian times derived from the disturbing relationship between eating and animal behavior. One manual said, “Eating is so entirely a sensual, animal gratification, that unless it is conducted with much delicacy, it becomes unpleasant to others.” These dinner parties were, in effect, a test of one’s control over bodily appetites.”
I’ll never make a Victorian, I like to eat too much, but reading the book I was immediately inspired to create an Alaskan-style Victorian menu. I’d make the punch directly from Kimball’s recipe for Victoria Punch, it sounds fabulous, and he and his co-conspirators certainly made and sampled their share. I can get oysters right across the bay. If I could wrangle some moose bones from friends I could make a clear moose broth. The fish course could be either salmon or halibut, whatever is fresh out of the Kachemak at the time. Venison from Kodiak, I have a source. Poultry, hmmm, maybe duck? Or, hey, maybe ptarmigan, my dad used to serve a fabulous pan-fried, oven-finished, wine-soaked ptarmigan breasts dish.
Vegetable, a potato gallette, from Yukon Golds grown in Alaska, but of course! Raspberry sorbet, from Alaskan raspberries. Burned butter frosting cake, not particularly Alaskan, but one of my favorites, and I know I can make it successfully. The cheeses will have to be from Costco. Only one liqueur, my grandmother’s framboise.
Serving twelve? Maybe eight. In two hours? Even Kimball could only manage four and a half. Still sounds like a lot of work, but as Kimball rightly says, “…cooking, it seems to me, offers the most direct way back into the very heart of the good life. It is useful, it is necessary, it is social, and it offers immediate pleasure and satisfaction.”
They did a PBS special on it, too, I can’t wait for it to be on DVD. The one thing lacking in this book is photographs.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.