By Aggie Maguire | TV | December 15, 2010 |
By Aggie Maguire | TV | December 15, 2010 |
Long, long ago. Before The Barefoot Contessa had us dreaming of living in an amazing house on Long Island with lots of trendy gay friends and a financier husband who only comes home on Fridays to eat roast chicken; before Nigella Lawson invented gastroporn to lure straight men into the cooking channel web; and even before Julia Child would famously flip omelettes onto the floor of a PBS studio, there was the mother of them all: Fannie Farmer. In 1896, Fannie Farmer published The Boston Cooking School Cookbook which became an instant best-seller and the definitive reference for any well-to-do housewife in the US (the less-well-to-do just ate potatoes and therefore needed no recipes beyond “boil water; add salt”).
In the PBS special, “Fannie’s Last Supper,” the people behind “America’s Test Kitchen” recreate a twelve-course meal for twelve from Fannie’s 1896 book preparing the recipes using ingredients and methods available at the time. Even if you’ve never watched a cooking show, this is a fascinating hour of television (but vegetarians and vegans might not agree). ATC’s chief, Christopher Kimball ripped out the oven in his 1850s Boston townhouse to install a genuine wood-burning stove as it would have been in Fannie’s day, and then his team of chefs spent a year getting the recipes right. The menu included oysters, venison, roast goose, brain balls, rissoles, intricate jellies, and a mandarin cake (which alone requires the cook to make marzipan, pastry cream, clementine sherbet, lemon sugar leaves, jellied clementines, and almond beurre blanc before even baking the cake). They tried to order turtles for the turtle soup course only to be told by the state of Massachussetts that they weren’t allowed to cook endangered species these days. It turns out that calves’ heads have about the same flavor as turtle and are therefore used in mock turtle soup, but you have to remove the brains first or the taste becomes as Kimball described it “exotic but sufficiently off in flavor and texture to produce the first tentative signs of gagging… . I had just eaten something that was best left still attached to a nervous system.” The cast iron oven had to be heated to over 600 degrees to cook the venison which raised the temperatures in the kitchen to unbearable levels even with two air-conditioners going. One of the chefs had to cook with aluminum foil wrapped around her because her pants started to melt. An intensive amount of labor is spent on the jellies alone: three days boiling calves’ feet to extract enough gelatin; food coloring made from beets, saffron and spinach and twelve hours jelling time between each layer.
The process is far more interesting than the dinner party since we only see it in brief glimpses anyway, and as it turned out most of the original recipes tasted pretty bad: they re-worked a lot of them for flavor. At the end I was left somewhat disappointed with the show which seemed a little too self-congratulatory. It would have been a lot more interesting to hear what the guests had to say about the food, and especially if there was anything they couldn’t bring themselves to eat (brain balls!!). By far the most entertaining thing about watching the show is being able to sit in a comfy armchair with a glass of Baileys while watching the tremendous drudgery and significant OSHA violations that went into preparing a lavish meal 100 years ago. That being said, the theme of a large festive dinner and the beautiful setting make it a perfect escapist show for the holiday season. Christopher Kimball (who didn’t do any of the cooking for the actual dinner party) recalls the night dreamily at the end of the hour, saying he would happily live back in the 1880s. Presumably “happily” contains a few conditions such as having the same wealth he has today and a team of underlings willing to risk third degree burns in order to cook his dinners.
((“Fannie’s Last Supper” is currently airing on PBS stations through December 31st and On Demand)
Aggie Maguire lives in a fly-over state where she enjoys waving at the people flying over and wondering if anybody ever waves back. She is a member of the Jane Austen society and a life-long supporter of the Home for Abused Apostrophes.