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Toasting Fannie Farmer With An Epic Victorian Feast

In 1896, Boston's Fannie Farmer published the best-selling cookbook of the era -- The Boston Cooking School Cook-Book. And in 2007 Chris Kimball, the host of PBS's America's Test Kitchen, set out to re-create that moment in culinary history: He would host an elaborate dinner using Victorian cooking methods outlined in Fannie's book.

The dinner was served last November and featured satin, jewels, gold-edged china, a mermaid carved from ice and a 12-course meal. Out of it came Fannie's Last Supper, Kimball's new book that tracks the two-year process of preparing his epic meal and a documentary of the meal itself.

Kimball tells NPR's Renee Montagne -- one of 10 guests at the dinner -- that his crew of chefs restricted themselves to only using cooking technology that was available during the Victorian era. Accordingly, all 12 courses of the meal were cooked on a 67-inch stove from the 1880s.

"We didn’t use modern ovens at all," Kimball says. "We might have used a mixer or a couple of things. But everything else was just knives, basic implements and the coal cook stove."

And while a 12-course meal may not have been a daily occurrence in the Victorian home, Kimball says that among the middle and upper classes, it became more and more common for Thanksgiving or Christmas gatherings.

"What happened toward the end of the 1800s was that people got very interested in etiquette and how you gave a dinner," Kimball says. "By getting these books and having these dinners, people felt like they were aspiring to being higher socially."

He says there were rules that were strictly adhered to, like never discussing politics at dinner and never leaving tooth marks on your food. But most of all, Kimball says, "You shouldn't be hungry. You should be above hunger."

But the challenges of Kimball's endeavor went beyond antiquated equipment and aristocratic behavior. Kimball is not one to shy away from culinary exploration, but he explains that Victorian recipes sometimes left a bit too much room to experiment.

"In the old days, recipes weren't like they are now; they're very short. So there [were] a lot of things you needed to know that were left unsaid," Kimball says.

Take, for example, Kimball's experience with Fannie Farmer's recipe for mock turtle soup.

"Mock turtle soup was not made with turtle because it was expensive. They boiled a calf's head, and that gave a similar flavor," Kimball says. "What they didn't tell us the first time we did it was, 'Take out the brains!' So I boiled a calf's head with the brain in it, and I got a really thick, gloppy stock. It was awful. I finally dug up a recipe from a New York author back in the 1880s that said, 'Step 1: Take brains out.' We didn’t know that."

Then there was the extreme heat emitted by the stove -- yet another obstacle to overcome.

"The day before [the dinner], the fire department actually [came] because we set off the alarms," Kimball says. "Erin McMurrer, my test kitchen director, her pants actually started to melt. We, in one case, actually wrapped aluminum foil around her pants to keep the heat off of them."

The temperature by the stove, Kimball says, was around 120 or 130 degrees, often forcing his staff to crouch down or use long utensils to cook without getting too close.

And then there were the time-consuming complexities of the dishes themselves. Coloring the three Victorian jellies, for example, involved learning to make food coloring from scratch -- using spinach for green, cream for white, saffron for yellow and beets for red. Meanwhile, the jellies themselves called for far less pleasant ingredients.

"These are made by boiling calves' feet," Kimball says. "You split them in half, and you simmer them for hours, and then you mix in sugar and lemon juice, and it sets up in the refrigerator when it's chilled."

According to Kimball, the jellies would be just as good if they were made with powdered gelatin, as is done today.

"You don’t actually have to use calves' feet," Kimball says. "But we just wanted to see if you could."

Fannie's Last Supper wasn't just about the challenge, he says. The dinner was also a way for him to learn the history.

"That process of cooking the food for a year-and-a-half, I learned more about 1890s and Victorians and Fannie Farmer than if I had read a thousand books on it," Kimball says. "You can't look at all the recipes in cookbooks and get the past. You just -- you have to cook it."

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