Mark Bittman called this book, “Part history and part contemporary journalism,” and I would add to that, part food memoir and part cookbook. There’s a lot going on here. Fannie’s Last Supper by Chris Kimball is made up of interweaving stories about Victorian-era Boston, modern-day Boston, and Kimball’s spectacular and somewhat baffling attempt to recreate a high-society Victorian-style meal (complete with many equally baffling recipes). Think Downton Abbey with more historical context and set in Boston in 2009.
I love the Victorian era: I love reading about it, watching movies and shows about it, listening to podcasts about it. Really. Love. So, take a book about Victorian history and add in food – recreating Victorian dishes, restoring an authentic Victorian kitchen, etc. – and I should be in heaven, right? Well, in the case of this book, the answer is…sorta.
I’ll get into some more details in a moment, but here’s the thing that I’ve realized about this book as I’ve tried to sort out, with no small amount of incredulity, my tepid reaction to it: much about the Victorian era has no place in our modern world and this book mashes them together in a way that ends up making me a little uncomfortable and ultimately ruins my Victorian fantasies.
This is because the Victorian era was actually pretty terrible for most of the people living in it, and the rest of the people were the upper class (like super upper, upper class). In that sense there is symmetry, unintended I think, in Kimball’s project because he and the friends he invites to his “Victorian-style” dinner are members of today’s upper class. For us normal people though, even though we may love learning about this time and fantasize about the aspects of life that were reserved for the rich, we would want nothing to do with it in reality. So, bringing it into our actual, current reality just feels…icky somehow.
Put another way – the whole book is just really bougy.
For instance, Kimball’s descriptions of buying and living in his “original Victorian bowfront townhouse” in South Boston in the 1990s will make anyone squirm who is conversant in the politics of gentrification. There’s also the sheer amount of money that is thrown at the whole endeavor: buying and restoring an original Victorian coal-turned-wood cook stove, testing and retesting and then preparing the 20+ (!!) recipes on the final menu, paying a staff of professional chefs and waiters to prepare and work the event itself. It is just absurd. Especially when you consider that this was happening in 2009, during the recession. And then to top it all off, a group of twelve elite food-scene celebrities (well, most of them anyway) gorge themselves on this 12-course meal in one Bacchanalian 4-hour evening. Ugh. It is enough to make me feel like putting on drab, olive-colored clothing and cracking open a copy of The Communist Manifesto…
To his credit, Kimball does try to preemptively address the obvious criticism that this is “just a bunch of overprivileged gourmands enjoying ridiculous overconsumption” (his words) with an argument about how meaningful it was for the kitchen staff who prepared the meal, followed by a missive about what we’ve lost in our relentless march towards technological advancement. It is undeniable that we’ve lost something with our processed, microwaved food world, and I enjoy bucking those trends by cooking at home. I’ve even been known to make my own butter, cheese, bread, etc. when I feel moved to do so. Let’s not harken back quite so far though, lest we forget that the vast majority of the people doing this (brutal) kitchen work in the Victorian era were poor women who did not really have much of a choice in the matter.
Anyways, as you can tell, I got a little cranky with this book. But despite this, I did not hate it. I actually enjoyed most of it. I think that if Kimball had just left out the big finale, I would have loved it. I loved reading about the history of Boston in this time period, since much of what we get about this time period tends to be of the British variety. I loved reading about the food and marveling over the ingredients and how complicated and labor intensive many of the dishes are to prepare. Even though some of the descriptions are a bit hard for me to stomach as a vegetarian – seriously, who wants to see a whole calf’s head bobbing around in their soup stock?! – I can absolutely appreciate the respect involved in using the whole animal in the way that many of the recipes do. Meat tended to be a luxury during this time and even those that could afford it needed to make it count. It was also interesting to read about Fannie Farmer, a shrewd businesswoman who, though Kimball found most of her recipes to be a bit pedestrian, taught many a middle-class housewife bereft of kitchen servants how to cook.
So, to sum up this too-long-and-semi-ranty post: if you are interested in Victorian and/or food history, you will probably mostly like this book. There’s even a website where you can watch video of the dinner, look at pictures, and get more recipes. Suspend disbelief enough to get through the aspects I complain about above, and it is a sumptuous, nerdy fantasy. If the points I make above really resonate with you, I would consider skimming over the opening chapters and skipping the last chapter entirely. Or, go ahead and read the whole thing and then rant at people about it. 😉