Fannie’s Last Supper – A Book Review

Fanny's Last Supper BookMy friend Amy told me about a new book entitled Fannie’s Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook by Chris Kimball, the host of America’s Test Kitchen and the editor of Cook’s Magazine. Yippee, I thought! A book about Fannie Farmer and a cook who spent two years (!) recreating Fannie’s twelve-course Christmas supper from 1896. My heart beat so fast I could barely contain myself. I immediately bought the book and dove right in.

Kimball’s premise was that after buying his 1859 Victorian townhouse in Boston he became so fascinated with the lifestyles of the era. Around the same time he found an old copy of a Fanny Farmer cook book. This lead him to wonder about the cooking of the era.

As I read the acknowledgments, I realized this man obviously has just a bit more access to cash then I do. His wife began to restore their town house and fill it with the proper antiques, he was able to hire a researcher, a man to restore his Number 7 cast iron cookstove, a test cook (can’t this man cook?), five sous-chef (again can’t this man cook?), two people to clean up, and six wait staff. Oh, and lets not forget Yvonne who engineered the Mandarin Cake and Andrea who “played” with the jellies and homemade calves foot gelatin. Phew! Naw, I’m not envious I promise. But I’m still questioning whether this guy can cook.

More Than Just a Family over for Dinner

More Than Just a Family over for Dinner

Anyway, after getting through those details I dug into chapter one on Victorian punch. I got kind of worried after reading on page 11 this “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.” Uh,oh. I found no foot note for this interesting, and slightly erroneous piece of information, (and I quickly learned that the bad editing job on the book meant that the few footnotes he does have do not match with the page numbers). Victorians of a higher social status often ate out at each others home and yes, it was a form of social compliment. But you did it often. Did he notice all those ways of setting the table in the Fanny Farmer cookbook? It sure wasn’t just for Ma, Pa, and the kids……

On page 15 I realized that Mr. Kimball is no objective historian. He writes “Where does one start planning a twelve-course Victorian menu? By the late nineteenth century, home dining was a culinary mishmash, from a simple supper of leftover cold meat and prunes to birds in potato cases and Gateau St. Honore. It was the end and the beginning of an era – everything was up for grabs.” Well, not exactly Mr. Kimball. What this means is that there were two types of dinners in Victorian times. One was the formal dinner for company that included fancy dishes elegantly prepared, and the other were simple dishes for a Sunday night supper after church when you didn’t want to cook. This was the norm, not a culinary mishmash.

Victorian Punch Bowl -- Photo by Joey Day

Victorian Punch Bowl -- Photo by Joey Day

This chapter also dealt with Victorian punch, or at least it tried to. Mr. Kimball decided to serve alcoholic punch to his guests while they arrived before dinner. This is despite the fact that Fanny’s Christmas Dinner did not mention a punch. His chapter goes on to detail an interesting history of punch mainly from the 17th and 18th century. Here we see again Mr. Kimball’s strange bias against Victorian cooking and Fanny Farmer in particular which will be oddly laced throughout this book which is supposed to be a book that celebrates her!

He writes, “Things started to go seriously wrong with punch recipes in the early twentieth century. What had been a simple, strong alcoholic drink became a rather revolting cooler, the sort of thing that a modern teenager who was trying to achieve alcoholic oblivion might appreciate.” He goes on to say, “Another recipe,this one from around the turn of the century, suggested adding sliced bananas to the punch bowl. No words can describe the horror.”

I’m sorry Mr. Kimball that bananas in a punch bowl in 1919 brings thoughts of horror to you, but the point is that is what they drank. I’m sure 100 years from now when people read your recipes some one will find your recipes equally horrifying! That is not the point of history. Sigh.

I will be making some of these horror producing punch recipes once I’m back from vacation next week. They look quite good to me. Here’s two that I’m going to try from Fanny’s cookbook.

Ginger Punch

  • 1 quart cold water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 lb Canton ginger
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice

Chop ginger, add to water and sugar, boil fifteen minutes; add fruit juice, strain, and dilute with crushed ice.

Cider Punch

  • 1 quart new or bottled cider
  • 3/4 cup lemon juice
  • Sugar
  • 1 quart Apollinaris water
  • ice

Mix cider and lemon juice,, and sweeten to taste. Strain into punch-bowl over a large piece of ice. Just before serving add Apollinaris.

My latest issue of MaryJanesFarm Magazine has a whole article on “Bringing Back the Holiday Punch Bowl.” It seems that punch is hot, hot, hot right now with bars in larger cities selling punch bowls and glasses to share with friends.

I’ll report back on the punch experiment and on next week’s book chapter in which is doesn’t deal with Fanny’s oysters – a first course for most formal Victorian meals.

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