Wacky kitchen gadgets of yore
Oct 10, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I must confess, dear readers, I love a good documentary, a good meal, and a good dose of history. Last week, while perusing Netflix, I found a program that combined all three of these interests: “Fannie’s Last Supper.” I was captivated from the moment the narration hit my ears. Which is saying a lot, considering I found some of the parts a bit icky (like the history behind mock turtle soup). The show captured the process behind re-creating a Victorian era meal. But, not just any ol’ meal, the featured culinary team hand-crafted a stunning twelve course event authored by America’s original cooking queen, Fannie Farmer.
Fannie was quite the national treasure and remains an icon to modern chefs worldwide. But it wasn’t her kitchen accomplishments that wowed me. What stood out to me was Fannie’s strength. Her sixteenth birthday, a moment usually reserved for rites of passage and joy, took a tragic turn for our young heroine. She suffered a paralytic stroke, which left her unable to walk for many years. For the next fourteen years the family home was really all she knew, but during that time she did acquaint herself with one special room in particular: the kitchen.
By the age of 30 she enrolled in the Boston Cooking School. Considering this was the 1800s, you can only imagine how revolutionary her academic ambitions would have seemed to “proper” society. In a few short years, Fannie rose the ranks from all-star pupil, to teacher, and onto principal by 1891. Her opus arrived five years later – The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.
This book was much more than a collection of recipes and meal recommendations, it was the beating heart of many a kitchen. As a testament to its staying power – 100 years after its debut, the book was still in print and flying off the shelf! As the filmmakers explain, her book captured some major advancements in cooking. For example, before Fannie’s book, measurements weren’t standardized. As a novice baker, I couldn’t imagine a world without my measuring cups and spoons! Fannie’s appreciation of nutrition was also well-known and she even would lecture at Harvard about the medicinal benefits of healthy diets. Talk about a woman ahead of her time!
While I found Fannie’s interwoven tale inspirational, the movie also got my mind thinking about the trends of menus and kitchen processes. For example, I learned that not finishing your plate was considered proper etiquette in Victorian times. In future, I’ll no longer feel awkward about grabbing a doggie bag for my leftovers. (Considering that Victorian dinner parties often involved numerous courses, I can imagine not adopting a “clean plate club” was the only way to keep from passing out at the end of the evening!)
So, without further ado, let’s take a peek at the tools that created these elaborate social events – those wacky kitchen gadgets of yore. First up – a cake breaker (without question, a scary-looking device). This gadget was officially patented in the early 1930s and was used to slice delicate cakes, such as angel food. Next time I have a squashed piece of cake I’ll think of this clever tool! Up next on our list: the small, but mighty butter mold. The butter mold burst onto the cooking scene in the 19th century, made of wood – and later glass – this gadget served as a stamp for freshly churned butter. It was all about presentation back then, and if Instagram is to be believed, the lure of a curated food scene is still tempting the modern chef.
Another old-school tool that lingers in a modern kitchen: the egg poacher pan. The star of such classics as Eggs Benedict and Eggs Sardou, this pan made breakfast preparations easier for generations of chefs (amateur and professional alike). In centuries past, the person in charge of meal prep didn’t buzz down to the store or place an order with UberEats. This person managed a process more akin to farm-to-table and the food mill was a big part of that endeavor. The three-part tool ground food, removed seeds and pulp, and can be considered the ancestor to the food processor. While more laborious than its modern counterparts, the food mill holds its own!
As time goes on, the cooking scene grows more and more specialized. Next time you go into a Crate & Barrel or check out a cooking segment on QVC, you’ll see heaps of proof. It’s interesting to consider how women (and men) of Fannie’s generation created epic feasts using tools that, while clever, were human-powered. There was no “set it and forget it” in this day and age (as the documentary beautifully depicts!).
Dear readers, as you consider your own cooking or baking style, how would you adapt to a life of vintage/antique gadgets? A life where the humble measuring spoon was declared an innovation? Let us know in the comments…