So, I kind of grew up with the nagging sense that I was born in the wrong century. Which annoyed my mother to the point that, when I was a teenager, she signed me up to volunteer as a site interpreter with the local historical society. And so, I got my fix of dressing up in period costumes, telling people not to touch things, and cooking on a woodburning stove.
You may notice that my current kitchen does not boast a woodburning stove. We’ve got the pretty little covering where a stove once connected to our old farmhouse’s chimney, but the dual-fuel beauty with six double-stacked burners that can pump out more BTUs than the average household furnace is a far cry from what was probably the first cooking instrument installed in our home.
That might explain why I was drawn to the book, “Fannie’s Last Supper,” by Christopher Kimball. After hearing about the book, I had to crack open this lovely volume to explore how anyone would willingly pursue preparing a 12-course Victorian meal to be consumed over the span of just a few hours…using a wood burning stove.
I’m also a sucker for context; one of my favorite historians, hands-down is Alison Weir, because she spends the first part of any book she writes (great stuff on Elizabethan England. The first Elizabeth, that is) immersing her readers into what her subjects’ world looked like when they lived. It’s a part of storytelling I really appreciate when going back in time.
So it was that I got hooked on the opening of this book: a family, relocating to Boston, find themselves on the dodgy end of town quite in love with a house with good bones and a patina of neglect that planted the seed of an idea: cook the kind of meals that would have been served at the time the house was built.
Over the years, as Kimball and his family worked on their loving restoration of the house, and as he realized that they lived not too far from where Fannie May and her family lived nearly a century earlier, that seed of an idea began to grow.
Perhaps it would be wise to pause here and explain for those who may not know that Mr. Kimball is one of those persons blessed with an innate curiosity about food, and how to make really good food. He’ll dedicate hours to a single recipe to find the “just right” methodology that will produce consistently great results.
“What if,” Kimball posits, “we recreate one of Fannie Farmer’s menus? And serve it to a dinner party, in the tradition of the times?” Probably not much of a surprise that the Public TV folks signed on, and they set a date. Then began the hardest work for Kimball and his crew, finding the right recipes and replicating ingredients and instructions that have changed significantly over the years.
And so the book follows a fairly frantic year of sourcing ingredients, researching cooking techniques, and assembling all the accoutrements that a household would have to make the dinner a success.
The narrative jumps back in time and then straight into the kitchen, balancing the expertise of Fannie Farmer (and sifting the style from the substance) with what Kimball’s own decades of experience have taught him. At times he does raise the white flag, finding that one dish or another would be simply inedible on today’s palate. He freely shares their mistakes too, which is an important point in how conventions of the day will play out in the details shared. Did you know you should remove the brains from the calf’s head before you boil it? Well, you do now.
The culmination into the event itself is perhaps the most riveting. And if you’ve ever watched an episode of “Upstairs Downstairs” – the original series, not the sequel that’s being dragged out – you know what I’m talking about. While the hosts try to keep the conversation flowing and observe a protocol that none of their guests were that familiar with, the staff below struggled to maintain even heat on the stove, and keeping food at the proper temperature while rushing upstairs to serve each plate; and as the evening wore on the kitchen began to resemble its own sort of hell: a thermometer sitting on top of the running-at-full-tilt air conditioner read 92 degrees. Closer to the stove you can bet it got a lot warmer! So warm, in fact, that a light bulb exploded.
I won’t give away the final result. But if you’ve seen the piece put together for PBS, you probably already know anyway. The book was immensely enjoyable, from the sense of peeling back the layers of how American eating has evolved (and in some cases, devolved). It made me pause, and wonder what dining traditions we hold close today will be completely forgotten 100 years from now…what food preparation methods will seem old-fashioned…what serving pieces will hold no purpose whatsoever.
And, if you’re feeling bold enough, you can even try out a recipe or two from the dinner yourself; recipes are shared throughout the book and on a website. Just remember to invite me over if you do!