When you have lunch with Chris Kimball, otherwise known as the Executive Chef of America's Test Kitchen, you expect a little analysis. No, a lot of analysis. After all, the man has managed to transform the rather thankless career of test kitchen research, the food equivalent of a mad research scientist adding a little of this or that in the solitude of a dark, dank kitchen (translation: writers, editors and chefs get all the credit), into a veritable made-for-television publishing empire. His flagship magazine, Cook's Illustrated, has long since expanded to a multi-million dollar enterprise (America's Test Kitchen, Cook's Country, a PBS television series, too many books to count). But don't mistake those swanky Santa Monica beach bungalow hotel digs for, well, what they really are. Kimball is not a corporate suit type (he prefers bow ties). He is incredibly focused and resolute — and damn it, intelligent.
With Kimball, you talk about what he wants to talk about. Yesterday, it was his new book, Fannie's Last Supper, which he was in town to promote. Fitting, really, for a man who has spent his career researching the right way to cook. And mastering publicity interviews. And so Squid Ink listened attentively. That book, by the way, is worth a look. If not for the less-than-practical recipes, though that's entirely the point (like these calf brain balls), than for the historical edification, all told in Kimball's characteristically elusive prose. Turn the page for the interview.
Christopher Kimball: So three years ago [my wife and I] bought a new house in Connecticut. The whole library had been cleaned out, but there was one book in the library, an original copy of Mary Lincoln's 1890's Boston Cooking School Cook Book.
Squid Ink: Original? Really?
CK: Yes, the only book that had been left in the entire library…. And I figured out that Fannie [Farmer, who published the Original Fannie Farmer 1896 Cook Book, a Boston Cooking School title] lived five blocks from our house [in Boston]. Everyone talks about Fannie Farmer as the mother of modern cooking.
But I just wondered, I have a lot of old cookbooks, and there were a lot of women at the time like her. I got interested in why her? Was her food any good, did she really know how to cook? And then I got interested in Boston — what day to day life was like at that time. I researched The Boston Globe and cookbooks, but I was really interested in cooking the food. Because you realize there is a lot of good, and a lot of bad food when you actually make it.
SI: Still true today.
CK: Yes. I also think it's interesting there is no such thing as cooking in 1896 because there were a hundred different kinds of cooking. If you were rich, or upper middle class or poor, it was an incredibly diverse time with food. With the Industrial Revolution, you could get things from Paris, from Italy, from all over the world, so there was no such thing as the cooking of the time.
Someone who was wealthy in Boston got mushrooms in Paris, and the rich people got the good cuts of beef, and the poor people ate salted pork. The more you look at it, it's really like it is today, a mishmash of stuff. And also the Victorians loved convenience — the women were sick of cooking seven hours a day. Jello came around, they were thrilled.
SI: Now we're a little too thrilled with Jello.
CK: Well, I think before the Civil War, 1850, maybe, most cooking was about preservation. You get a bushel of beans, you get a pig, so you salt it, you preserve it anyway you can. After the Civil War, the railroads were built out, refrigerated railroads came out in the 1880s, and there was more money. So you could go into S.S. Pierce, which was a big retailer in Boston at the time, you could buy a jar or can of peaches, a jar of the beans, you weren't dealing with those huge quantities as before.
You could get powdered gelatin instead of boiling calves' feet. I think the initial stages of convenience, the first twenty or thirty years, were great. Baking powder is great. But by the 1890s, 1900s, then you got Aunt Jemima pancake mix, you've got Post and Kellogg getting started. Very quickly by the first world war, industry figured out how to capitalize on that convenience. But no one would argue that gelatin wasn't a good thing. It was a vast improvement from boiling calves' feet. But Jello, you know, really, was not a good thing. There's a lot of adulteration that suddenly started happening to food.
SI: Are we really getting back to home cooking with all these food television shows and celebrity chefs?
CK: Cooking is coming back, but it won't come back the way it is in the 1970s. We lost an entire generation in their 30s to 50s, with cooking. And so, the other thing about doing the book is it's really not that hard cooking on a cold cook stove [coal; Kimball converted the one he installed in his Connecticut home to wood-burning]. It seemed that way at first, but once you get used to it, it's fine. Actually, it's better than using a gas stove. I know at the end of the process, Erin, my Test Kitchen Director, she actually preferred it to a gas stove. She found she had more control. Feeding the fire was not a big deal after a while. It is hot, though.
So if you were a woman in the 1880s and 1890s, spending all these hours a day cooking and cleaning, assuming you weren't rich, not having to do that was a big deal. Up until the Civil War, people were trying to survive. When women didn't have to do that anymore, they went to work, they wanted a social life. The home became an artistic display. That's how we got where we are today. But I do think this whole thing about convenience today is that we've gone too far the other direction… Most people [in taste tests] mistake corn syrup for maple syrup, can't tell the difference between them at all…That's today.