Chris Kimball is a busy man.
Since 2001 he has hosted "America's Test Kitchen" on PBS while holding down his editorial duties with Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country magazines. If that sounds like a couple of full-time jobs, it is.
So where on earth did he find the time to research and test a 19th century dinner from Fannie Farmer's classic cookbook, prepare it for a houseful of notable guests, write a book on it and film it all for a companion TV special?
"Well, I had my weekends," Kimball said with a Yankee earnestness that didn't betray whether he was kidding. "I got hungry for making stuff from scratch again. I get the sense that a lot of people are doing that. There's some small percentage of the population doing it. And regardless of the trend, I just wanted to get back in the kitchen in a serious way. I was sick and tired of the quick stir-frys."
He and his wife had spent the last two decades restoring their Boston home to its Victorian roots, and along the way he found out that, had they been born in the right century, they would have been neighbors of Farmer's. It created an affinity for the famed cook beyond just her place in American cooking history.
And so was born the idea of "Fannie's Last Supper" (Hyperion, $25.99), an exploration of not only a more than 100-year-old meal, but just how we have evolved as cooks.
"If you want to learn about Boston in the 1890s, go back to the cookbooks and understand the food and you learn a huge amount about who these people were in that way," Kimball said.
It wasn't as easy as just cracking open the cookbook. Beyond the physical changes in kitchens, modern cooks have lost a level of assumed knowledge that people cooking up to seven hours a day would have possessed.
"The classic example in the book is to make a stock with a calf's head," Kimball said. "Well, they didn't tell you to take the brains out first. So, I kind of had a porridge-y first pass at the stock."
All in all, Kimball and a crew from "America's Test Kitchen" spent 18 months researching, testing and sourcing the ingredients for the meal, discovering what worked and what had to be updated for a modern palate.
"The takeaway was Fannie was cooking English food," he said. "American cooking was essentially English cooking. That's why most of the desserts were puddings, you know, or custards. And they do roasts well. They don't do vegetables well. Forget fish.
"What was interesting was comparing her recipes to (famed French chef and author Auguste) Escoffier. Escoffier came around and said, 'This cooking is too old-fashioned, it's too heavy, let's lighten it up.' So his food, for example, when he made a sauce, he used half as much flour per cup of liquid versus Fannie. She was doing sort of classic cooking at the time other people were coming around trying to change the game."
The result was a memorable meal and book. And as much as he enjoyed hosting foodie luminaries like Jose Andres and Mark Bittman, the result didn't hold a candle to the process.
"To be honest, the kitchen was where all of the fun was."
Inside the dining room
So, how was the meal? We had someone on the inside, Tribune Newspapers' Amy Dickinson, otherwise known as advice columnist "Ask Amy," who answered our questions:
Q: How did the dinner compare to a multicourse dinner you might find in a modern restaurant?
A: It's hard to compare the "Dinner of the Century" to any dinner I've ever had. First of all, it was prepared over wood-burning stoves in the basement of a beautiful town house and brought to the table by women wearing ankle-length skirts and mutton chop blouses. The dinner took place over many hours on a frosty night — every course was served with an explanation of what it was and how it was made. I had never eaten a meal presented with this sort of context before.
Q: Was there anything you tasted that made you say, "Hmmmm, I don't see or taste a lot of that these days"?
A: Let me start by saying that I will eat anything. Anything. Even a dish called "brain balls" (which garnished the soup). So I ate the brain balls. But I'll never eat them again. Also mock turtle soup. These days we don't feel the need to even mock the taste of turtle soup. And this soup, made with meat from calves' cheeks, was beautifully prepared and presented, but not tasty.
Q: What did you like or dislike the most?
A: The desserts, especially the jellies, were spectacular. And I'm not much for sweets. I am talking about multilayered confections of jiggly gelatins. They were bright, beautiful and delicious and they made me wish I'd brought some Tupperware along to sneak a treat or two away from the table. But those brain balls? No, thank you.
Duxbury Island Creek oysters
Mock turtle soup
Lobster a l'Americaine
Saddle of venison with potatoes lyonnaise, sugared beets and currant jelly sauce
Fried baby artichokes
Canton frozen punch
Roast goose with chestnut stuffing and applesauce
Molded Victorian jellies
Coffee, cheese, crackers
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