Sunday, March 23, 2008

Fannie Farmer Tales

"Cookery is the art of preparing food for the nourishment of the body. Prehistoric man may have lived on uncooked foods, but there are no savage races today who do not practice cookery in some way, however crude. Progress in civilization has been accompanied by progress in cookery."
~Fannie Merritt Farmer, The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, 1896~

Often credited as "the mother of level measurements" or, "the pioneer of the modern recipe", Fannie Merritt Farmer was born on March 23, 1857 in Boston Massachusetts. As a young girl, Fannie Farmer's family moved to Medford, Massachusetts.

Fannie Merritt Farmer lived in a duplex house which stood on this site until destroyed by fire in 1979. The Farmer family owned the house throughout her lifetime. Fannie moved to Medford as a child and attended Medford Public Schools and the Unitarian Church. At the age of 13, the redheaded student became paralyzed from the waist down and dropped out of Medford High School. She eventually recovered but always retained a limp. Fannie Farmer always considered Medford her home. She graduated from the Boston Cooking School in 1889 and became its director in 1891. In 1896 she edited the world famous "Boston Cooking School Cookbook," also known as the "Bride’s Bible." In 1902 she opened "Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery." Called "the mother of level measurement," she was proud of her introduction into cooking of exact measurement. After her death her heirs allowed her name to be associated with the candies by the Fanny Farmer Candy Shops, Inc. source

Fannie Farmer first became interested in cooking as a young child while confined to a wheel chair. Due to her illness, her education ended abrubtly and she recovered slowly. To occupy herself she read as many cookbooks as she possibly could find, including the greatest chefs before her time. Her adaptation for precise measurement was a result of much experimentation. No one before Fannie Farmer had explained accurate measurements in recipes. Measurment standards of the time were unspecified. Now, I find them charming:) a teacup full of sherry, enough water to float an egg, a nut of butter. It is often difficult to translate stirrings of the past. With these standardized measurements producing reliable results, even the inexperienced cook was able to create a masterpiece. It's no wonder that when she edited the edition of one of America's most popular cookbooks, The Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1896) it also became known as "The Bride's Bible." It has also caused quite a bit of confusion.

Two Boston Cooking School Cookbooks!

An on going debate in the world of cookbooks seems to brew and simmer. There are those who accuse Fannie Farmer of downright plagiarism. There are those who do not. I can certainly understand the debate and quite frankly, my opinion doesn't really matter. I just would like to say, personally, I have more of a problem digesting the claim that Miss Farmer "invented" the use of level measurements" or is "the mother of level measurements." Perhaps, the notion of precise measurement was easier for the housewife to swallow coming from Farmer. 1896 was not the first time anyone had attempted to interpret pounds, gills, scruples, tea cupfuls etc. into household measurements. I recall reading, British writer Eliza Acton, had been publishing precise and tested recipes fifty years earlier. That's all I have to say on that subject.

The pre-Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cook Book is one of my most treasured cookbooks. It was published in 1883, and authored by Mrs. D. A. Lincoln. The book is subtitled "What To Do and What Not To Do in Cooking." Mrs. Lincoln was the founder of The Boston Cooking School. Fannie Merritt Farmer was a student at the school in 1887 and graduated in 1889. She eventually became principal of the school from 1891 until 1902 when she opened Miss Farmer's School of Cookery on August 23, 1902.

Both women had different approaches to domestic science which was reflected in their individual schools, as well as their Boston Cooking School Cookbooks. At Miss Farmer's School of Cookery, classes were designed for training housewives with emphasis on practical food preparation. Mrs. Lincoln's approach was aimed at professional cooks. As I browse through the pages of Mrs. Lincoln's cookbook, there doesn't seem to be any constant pattern used in the recipes themselves. Some of the recipes contain ingredients and directions in column form while others have the ingredients and directions in paragraph form but the ingredients are set apart in italics. There are those who believe Fannie Farmer's book by the same name is a re-working of the original book by Mrs. Lincoln. In her book Cookbooks Worth Collecting, Mary Barile states:

Even though she was director of the school, Farmer's The Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896) was a personal gamble: according to her agreement with the original publishers, she paid for the book's publication while the company acted simply as the sales outlet. Farmer was also placed in the uncomfortable position of updating the school's text, which was originally written by Mrs. Lincoln, a formidable woman who was still alive and teaching and who still claimed many readers and fans. A general rewrite was performed, and the main difference between the two women and their styles is illustrated in the opening chapter. Mrs. Lincoln took the highhanded thought that "all civilized nations cook their food, to improve its taste and digestibility. The degree of civilization is often measured by the cuisine." Fannie was more down to earth, noting that "progress in civilization has been accompanied by progress in cookery."

Another rendition lies in the signatures of the book titled The Taste of America by John & Karen Hess.

While Mrs. Lincoln attributed many of her recipes to the donors, including Miss Parloa, "Mrs. Towne's Matilda," "an unknown friend," and so on, the only source credited in Miss Farmer is an unidentified "French Chef," to whom she assigns several exotic recipes such as mulligatawny soup. Clearly, she did not create hundreds of recipes out of the blue. She learned cooking from Mrs. Lincoln's book (the textbook at the Boston Cooking School at the time), but did not acknowledge it in any way. Now, recipes that have many sources need not be attributed; Miss Farmer, however, exaggerated in this regard. She was by no means the first to appropriate other people's recipes as her own, but as the patron saint of American housewives she put her seal of approval on it, and contributed to the moral climate of the cookbook world today, where plagiarism is the norm.

The Boston Cooking School Cookbook published January 7, 1896, by Fannie Merritt Farmer became widely known as "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" long before its many editions. But, I don't think it was her first book. According to the reference book Vintage Cookbooks & Advertising Leaflets by Sandra J. Norman & Karrie K. Andes, Fannie Farmer also authored Selections from a New Cook Book introduced by Rumford Chemical Works in 1896. I suppose it's a matter of which came first. Fannie Farmer spent her later years lecturing and co-writing a monthly column for Woman's Home Companion along with Cora Dexter Farmer Perkins. If given a choice, it is often written that Miss Farmer wished to be remembered as a teacher who instilled in her students the proper diet and nutrition needed for the care of the ill. This was reflected in her book titled Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent. Fannie Farmer continued to lecture, write, and invent recipes until her death in 1915. I have an issue of American Cookery Magazine dated April 1915. It contains an obituary stating that Fannie Merritt Farmer died that year on January 14. Her school continued to flourish after her death, under the leadership of Alice Bradley, until it closed in 1944. When candymaker Frank O'Connor opened his first candy shop in New York in 1919, he named it after Fannie Merritt Farmer. source

The tales of Fannie Farmer and The Boston Cooking School Cookbook vibrate across most culinary websites on the internet. I have provided only a handful to begin your journey. The last edition which held the copyright of Fannie Merritt Farmer was in 1914. The following recipe is from The Boston Cooking School Cook Book published in 1924 with a copyright by Cora D. Perkins. I thought it appropriate to include an Easter Salad a la Fannie Farmer since today is also Easter Sunday. Enjoy!

Easter Salad
Put eggs in saucepan, cover with boiling water, and let boil fifteen minutes. Remove shells and while hot hold between thumb and finger while pressing into apple shapes keeping under a stream of cold water. Mix a bit of Fruit Red with cold water and apply to eggs, using a brush.  Insert a clove to represent blossom end, and a stem and leaves to represent stem end (hot house lilac leaves answer the purpose), and arrange on lettuce leaves. Serve with Mayonnaise Piquante
Mayonnaise Piquante To one cup Mayonnaise dressing add 2 tablespoons each, olives and pickles, finely chopped.

This pictured Easter Salad recipe is from The Presto Book of Menus & Recipes by Della Thompson Lutes (undated). It is a beautifully illustrated promotional book for Presto canning products published by a distributor named the Cupples Company in St. Louis, Missouri.

1. Fannie Farmer Biography @ Notable Biographies
2. Fannie Farmer @ Feeding America
3. The Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1918)
4. A letter from Alice Bradely principal Miss Farmer's School of Cookery
5. Miss Farmer's School of Cookery Boston Recipe Book
6. Apple Pie by the Book: Fannie Farmer vs. Catherine Beecher with recipes from both
7. Surprise Chicken Soup
8. Raised Waffles
9. Sunshine Cake

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