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 figuring out how to put on a Victorian spread for twelve, using a coal stove, no less. Along the way we are treated 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 in this book, but there are wonderful observations and nuggets of information scattered throughout that make the book well worthwhile, especially about Victorian dining habits:
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. Right away I was inspired to think of doing an Alaskan-style Victorian meal. I’d make the punch directly from his 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, venison from my friend Becky who hunts on Kodiak. Poultry, hmmm, have to find a friend who goes duck hunting. Maybe Gary?
Vegetable, a potato gallette, from Yukon Golds grown in Alaska, but of course! Raspberry sorbet, burned butter frosting cake, and the cheeses will have to be from Costco. Only one liqueur, my grandmother’s framboise that I make myself.
Serving twelve? Maybe eight. In two hours? Even Kimball only managed 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. Good, because the one thing that is lacking in this book is photographs.
And coming on January 9, 2020, the 22nd Kate Shugak novel.
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Author and founder of Storyknife.org.