Fannie Merritt Farmer transformed kitchens and holiday tables with her best-selling cookbooks. Many are still in print nearly 125 years later. She was the bespectacled embodiment of feeding family, friends and the sick with delectably nourishing food. But just beneath the culinary expert’s maternal image, Fannie Merritt Farmer was also a fierce trailblazer and shrewd businesswoman who trended the embryonic Domestic Science movement.
Following are five reasons to applaud Fannie Merritt Farmer in addition to her great recipes.
Fannie Merritt Farmer was a study in resilience like so many women who experienced early hardship. She was born in Boston, Massachusetts on March 23, 1857. One of four girls, her parents believed in education and expected their daughters to attend college. But Farmer was sixteen when she suffered a paralyzing stroke. She was forced to quit her formal education.
During her long convalescence at her family’s home, she learned to cook. She later turned the home into a highly successful boarding house that became known for the food it served. She later became a governess/domestic manager for a wealthy family.
Farmer continued to walk with a limp throughout her life. At age 30, she enrolled in the Boston Cooking School where she studied until 1889. As one of its top students, she was asked to stay as the school’s assistant director. In 1891 she became its principal.
In 1896 she wrote The Boston Cooking School Cook-Book. It was a follow-up to the book written by the former principal, Mary J. Lincoln. Later re-titled The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, her collection of recipes included new takes on American classics as well as more exotic dishes from Europe. Her precise recipes were designed for all skill levels so that everyone could master at least a few dishes.
Her publishers did not believe that a cookbook could be successful. Unflinching, Farmer paid for 3000 copies, making her one of the early self-publishers. Prior to publication, she bought the copyright. Her shrewd business moves made her a wealthy woman.
Her cookbook went on to sell millions of copies. It’s still available in reprints. The thirteenth edition was published in 1996 with updates and revisions by author Marion Cunningham. An estimated 7 million copies have been sold.
Her recipes were delicious, but she also included healthy doses of science in her first book. In her forward:
“During the last decade much time has been given by scientists to the study of foods and their dietetic value, and it is a subject that should rightfully demand much consideration from all. I certainly feel that the time is not far distant when a knowledge of the principles of diet will be an essential part of one’s education.”
Farmer’s seamless combination of food science and excellent recipes made her a new type of celebrity kitchen authority. She went on to write many more cookbooks through the years.
Founded in 1879 by the Woman’s Education Association of Boston, the Boston School of Cooking was based on the nascent Domestic Science movement. In addition to understanding how to make food flavorful, students studied nutrition, diet and health issues related to the kitchen. Along with Maria Parloa, Mary Lincoln and Ellen Swallow Richards (the first woman to attend MIT), Farmer was a pioneer of Home Economics.
She is often considered the “mother of level measurements.” This was no small step in a world in which cooks often did not know how to measure accurately. Farmer replaced loose terms like dollop, fistful, and finger length with numbers that could be successfully replicated every time a recipe was visited. She was on the edge of the scientific 20th century.
Her cookbook began with scientific information including nutritional content, caloric calculations and digestibility. She also addressed convalescent diet and nutrition for various illnesses and conditions.
In 1904 she published Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent. The epigraph came from Florence Nightingale: “A good sick cook will save the digestion half its work.”
She included extensive chapters in her book for each of the big holidays including Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter and July 4th. An early trendsetter, she shaped holidays for more than a century.
A sample of Thanksgiving menu:
Oysters with Sherry, Thanksgiving Soup, Popped Corn, Roast Stuffed Turkey with Brown Gravy, Sweet Potatoes a la Bement, Boiled Onions, Turnip Croquettes, Cranberry Conserve, Chicken Pie, Chiffonade Dressed Lettuce, Puritan Pudding Foamy Brandy Sauce, Mince Pie Pumpkin Pie. Nuts and Raisins, Assorted Fruit, Cafe Noir.
It was a time when women were barely allowed to enter restaurants unaccompanied by a male escort. They were just entering the work world in large numbers. Avenues for employment—let alone rising to the top–were even more limited than today. The Boston School of Cooking prepared women to become cooking teachers. By elevating cooking with a more intellectual approach, the founders of the school believed they elevated the role of women as cooks.
In 1902 she opened her own school, Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery. The curriculum focused on feeding the sick and diseased. She trained hospital employees including nurses and dietitians. Farmer lectured weekly at her school, women’s clubs and even Harvard University. She co-edited a food column for Woman’s Home Companion with her sister Cora Dexter Farmer Perkins.
She suffered more strokes that left her in a wheelchair, but she continued to lecture until days before her death on January 16, 1915.
Prep: 10 minutes
Bake: 35 minutes
Makes: 16 squares
This recipe is from the 1906 edition of “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.” It is believed to be the first recipe for a chocolate brownie to be presented in a cookbook.
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup melted butter
1 egg, unbeaten
2 squares Baker’s chocolate, melted
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup walnut meats, cut in pieces
Mix ingredients in order given. Line a seven-inch square pan with paraffin paper. Spread mixture evenly in pan and bake in slow oven. As soon as taken from oven turn from pan, remove paper, and cut cake in strips, using a sharp knife. If these directions are not followed, paper will cling to cake, and it will be impossible to cut it in shapely pieces.
Per piece: 135 calories, 7 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 21 mg cholesterol, 18 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 5 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
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