Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Musings: Fannie's Last Supper

Fannie's Last Supper
Fannie's Last Supper:  Re-Creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook is one of those books in the new-ish "food writing" genre.  It's written by chef Christopher Kimball of America's Test Kitchen about... well, recreating a meal from a Victorian era cookbook.

Except that he doesn't actually re-create a meal based on Fannie Farmer's best-selling American cookbook.  Nope.  He uses her recipes as a base, alters them pretty substantially, and then cooks them for a dinner party.  So while he shares a lot of interesting facts about cooking and its evolution, and about eating and the Victorian era... he doesn't actually deliver on the title of his book.

I enjoyed several aspects of this book.  I really liked the snapshot of Boston around the turn of the last century.  It was fascinating to read about grocery stores just coming into being, the way Victorian kitchens were set up, the types of food people ate, etc.  I love history, and this greatly appealed to me.  For example, I didn't know that oysters were so cheap in 1896.  Or that coffee was so well-loved.  Or that the food consumed was so international in scope, rather than localized the way I expected.  It was great learning about everyday activities and tasks.

It was also interesting to hear about how Kimball and his team came up with the meal he served.  However, as I am unlikely to ever serve cow brain soup or make my own gelatin from calves' hooves, I can't imagine I will have use for the recipes he shares in this book.  He spends a significant amount of time detailing the recipes, but generally they all follow the same format:  1.  Cook Fannie Farmer's recipe as specified.  2.  Decide Fannie's recipe is flawed.  3.  Rework recipe completely.

I understand Victorian tastes differ greatly from modern ones.  I also get that directions can be vague and ingredients can be hard to find.  But I got the distinct impression through this book that Fannie Farmer's cookbook was not good.  The recipes appear mediocre at best (at least to modern tastes), so I'm not sure why Kimball chose that particular cookbook as his base from which to host a Victorian dinner party.  The only reason I could think of was that it was the most popular cookbook of the era in America.  Which doesn't say much about American cooking circa 1900, that's for sure.

I also found the beginning of the book, where Kimball tries to justify the inspiration for the Victorian dinner party project, and the end of the book, where he tries to draw lofty conclusions from the experiment, to be a little tough to swallow (and yes, pun intended).  At the beginning, he spends time discussing the current food debate about how Americans never cook and therefore eat crap.  He is against this train of thought, pointing out that Americans still spend most of their money for food to be consumed at home and spend about an hour preparing dinner and that cooking is just much simpler for people now than it was a century ago.  However, by the end of the book, he goes on and on against "convenience" and states that people have too much spare time on their hands and spend most of it watching tv instead of being productive.  Which to me felt like a complete about-face from his comments at the start of the book.  This in turn made me feel like he couldn't really think of a reason as to why he went through so much trouble (and cost!) to host a full 12-course Victorian dinner, and that made the whole book feel much more gimmick-like to me.

Generally, I think this book was engaging and I enjoyed the Boston food history contained within its pages.  However, as the book is a companion to a PBS TV special, I think it would probably make more sense to watch the TV special than to buy the book.

Note:  This review is based on an advanced reader's copy.  I received this book for free to review.

Note 2:  I have switched from using the word "Review" to using the word "Musings" when I discuss a book.  This is mostly because I don't actually think I review any books on here ;-)  Just share my thoughts on them with you.  I think this might be a more accurate descriptor.

11 comments:

  1. I just put this book on hold at my library! It sounds fascinating just regarding the food history. I have read historical recipes and they scare me a little. I'm a big fan of Cook's Illustrated and reworking recipes is their whole focus, so I'm not surprised they changed all the recipes around to make them edible. I look forward to reading this.

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  2. Despite the rambling and pontificating at the beginning and close of this book, the other aspects that you mention ( grocery stores at the turn of the century and such) make me think that this would definitely make a good read for me. I am all about food literature, really, and this sounds very different than most of what is out there right now.I am adding this to my wish list and going to give it a try. I would love to share my thoughts on it with you as well!

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  3. Jason has a recipe that was Emily Dickinson's, but it's a cake or something made for like 60 people, so it involves tons and tons of ingredients. I'm not sure how one would cook something like that, but he really wants to try one day.

    I remember being surprised by how much coffee was in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and that's not set too many years from this, maybe 10 or so.

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  4. I am not surprised that he changed the hell out of the recipes. After all that cooking and spending, I am sure he wanted the food to be eaten! My only beef (hahaha) with the whole project would be how far he came from his original and much stated intent to present the recipes as is. Why not just own it and say "hey, I had to change everything so we could stomach eating it?"

    Oh well. I think I will still try to read it, due to the bits of fascinating history you mentioned :)

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  5. Karen- Yes, the history IS fascinating! One part about growing apples in particular was quite enlightening.

    Zibilee- I like food literature, too! And, as always, I'd love to discuss the book to death over email with you ;-)

    Amanda- WOW. A recipe for a cake that feeds 60 people?! How did that even fit in an oven? That sounds crazy, but fun :-)
    I was surprised that coffee was so big before, too, but I think coffeehouses were pretty big in Europe in the 1700s, so makes some sense.

    Sudha- It's true he can change things for modern tastes, but I wish he hadn't made it SEEM like he was just going to cook what she wrote. He didn't keep any of the recipes the same, and sometimes didn't go with her recipes at all. And yes, I think you'd like the history. I'll keep the book for you to borrow :-)

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  6. Cooking her recipes is probably the hook he used to sell the book to the publisher and they wouldn't let him change it. He had to do something to make it all edible.....(not that I know what the original recipes were). But I agree, it's a cheat.

    Did you know they used to feed the Alcatraz prisoners (in the San Franciso Bay) oysters, lobsters and crab because that was what the "poor" people were reduced to eating?

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  7. Musings are good too :) But not the book for me

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  8. Have you seen this? http://theoatmeal.com/comics/cook_home

    Because that is kind of what this project sounds like to me. :p (Of course, any cooking sounds like that to me.)

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  9. I love you blog soooo much. The best reading review blog I've found by far. At least the one with the most in common with my reading style. follow me as well!! I need followers, and I review books you might be interested in!

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  10. Over here there's an experimental chef called Heston Blumenthal who has a show where he cooks crazy dinner parties for a few celebs and walks through exactly what he's doing and he did a series of parties based on historical food. It sounds like the difference between that and this book was 1.) his show wasn't really aiming to hand out recipies and pretend people might cook them, more about the expereince of recreation for him and 2.)he was really upfront about what he was really 'recreating' and what he was adapting hugely. Fun to watch, but I'm not sure how fun it would be to read and sounds like the change from screen to book wasn't so successful in 'Fanny's Last Supper' either.

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  11. I like food books, but this one just doesn't sound like its for me.

    I like the word "musings." It's a good description.

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