The founder of Cook’s Illustrated and host of America’s Test Kitchen hosts an elaborate meal—a tasty time machine transporting readers back to the kitchens and dining rooms of Victorian America.
Kimball’s journey comprises numerous detours. We learn about the purchase and conversion of his Boston home, the discovery and renovation of an 1890s coal/wood stove, the training and practice of his support staff and the seemingly endless testing of and tinkering with recipes. (Cost seems not to have been much of a factor.) The author ends each chapter with the final version of the recipe he used. Kimball instructs us about the history of American cookery, utensils, food products and the choreography of the Victorian kitchen staff. He underscores the enormous effort it took to acquire food, prepare it and clean up afterwards, and he emphasizes the paradox of the class system in a democracy. The author also perused countless cookbooks from the era, read newspaper articles and recipes and studied old maps of Boston—all eventually influenced his decisions about the preparation of his mega-meal. Kimball tells the story of Fannie Farmer, whose kitchen was near his home, but he doesn’t think much of the aesthetic or gustatory pleasures of many of Farmer’s recipes (he uses terms like “inedible” and “particularly vile” to describe some of them). He recognizes, though, that she took a big step in the evolution of contemporary cooking. The day of the meal finally arrived—an event that PBS filmed and will air in November 2010—and amid the hustle, bustle and incredible cookstove heat, people ate a lot and sang old Broadway hits afterward.
Even though some of Kimball’s final clichéd observations and puffy epiphanies collapse like an ill-prepared pastry, he provides an appealing confection of cultural history, memoir and culinary instruction.