What Fannie Farmer Means to Me

Fannie Farmer around 1900 (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library)

Fannie Farmer around 1900 (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library)

Like many American home cooks I own more cookbooks than I can use. Over the years hand-me-downs from family members, birthday gifts, and impulse purchases have brought more than 100 volumes to my kitchen shelves.
Whenever I decide to try preparing a dish I’ve heard about but never made, I rummage through those shelves energetically, comparing versions in various culinary tomes and searching for the recipe that appeals to me most.
Nine times out of ten at the end of this ritual quest I end up holding the same book in my hands: The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.
This basic cookbook, the use of which I inherited from my mother and her mother, celebrated its 114th birthday a few days ago.
The original 1896 edition was the product of the original Fannie Farmer, a zealous but engaging businesswoman.
Fannie Merritt Farmer was born in Boston in 1857, one of four daughters of a printer and his conscientious homemaker wife. The Farmers were not wealthy, but they did place a high value on education.
Redheaded Fannie, the brightest of the lot, was originally destined for college. Her education was derailed when as a high-school student she became ill with what scholars believe was probably polio. It took her years to learn to walk again.
She would not find her true calling until she reached 31, when her family and the woman for whom she had been working as a mother’s helper encouraged her to enroll in the Boston Cooking School.
The school, which specialized in training teachers and cooks, was part of a late-19th-century movement toward scientific cookery.
Farmer succeeded so well in her studies that at her graduation she was asked to serve as assistant to the school’s director, Carrie M. Dearborn. When Dearborn died a couple of years later Farmer was viewed as the obvious choice to take over the school.
She increased its enrollment by broadening its appeal, recruiting as students young women training to be homemakers rather than cooks. In 1901 she split off from the Boston Cooking School to start her own highly successful culinary academy, Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery.
Before that departure, however, in 1896, Farmer took charge of revising and expanding the school’s main textbook, The Boston Cooking School Cookbook. She approached the Boston publisher Little, Brown about putting out a trade edition, arguing that it would sell well to the general public.
(Courtesy of Michigan State University)

(Courtesy of Michigan State University)

With shortsightedness they must have rued long afterward, Little, Brown’s representatives refused to take on the project. They did allow themselves to be persuaded by the self-confident Fannie Farmer to serve as her printers and distributors for the book.
Farmer paid the costs of publication and consequently took home the lioness’s share of the profits when the book enjoyed the success she had anticipated. The 3000 copies of the original printing sold out quickly, and the book saw yearly reprintings and frequent revisions until Farmer’s death in 1915, when it was taken on by other authors and editors.
Now known simply as The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, the book is in its 13th edition.
Three major factors accounted for Farmer’s popularity as a teacher and as a writer. First, she had faith in herself and in her profession. “Progress in civilization,” she wrote in the first chapter of her cookbook, “has been accompanied by progress in cookery.”
Second, she enjoyed her work and expected her students and readers to enjoy preparing and eating food as well.
Laura Shapiro, who devoted a chapter of her book Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century to Farmer’s accomplishments, explained, “While other cooks always insisted that their own preferences in food were simple and austere, Fannie Farmer liked to eat and didn’t mind saying so.”
Her enthusiasm for food—plain and fancy, sweet and savory—communicated itself to those around her.
Finally, in an era in which cooking was still to a great extent an inexact science, Farmer streamlined its practice. She was known as “The Mother of Level Measurements.”
Shapiro recounted what she acknowledged as the probably apocryphal tale of a Boston Cooking School student who was confronted with recipes calling for pinches of salt and pats of butter the size of an egg. The student supposedly asked Farmer how big those pinches and eggs were supposed to be.
Perhaps in response to this sort of query, Farmer applied herself to the task of defining and reinforcing exact measurements. “Correct measurements are absolutely necessary to insure the best results,” she asserted in a section of her book titled “How to Measure.”
“A cupful is measured level … A tablespoon is measured level. A teaspoon is measured level.”  
This 1899 advertisement illustrates Fannie Farmer's authority as a food expert.

This 1899 advertisement illustrates Fannie Farmer’s authority as a food expert.

My maternal grandmother, Clara Engel Hallett, studied under Fannie Farmer. The adopted child of well to do Vermont farmers, my grandmother was sent by her foster parents to take a course at Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery around 1910 in order to prepare for the culinary obligations of marriage to my grandfather.
My grandmother is now dead, and I never had the sense to ask her while she lived exactly what she learned at Fannie Farmer’s school.
From my many years of observing her in the kitchen—and my perusal of Farmer’s first edition—I would guess that my grandmother learned to respect the basic food groups. Even when dining alone she never served dinner without a salad course and some kind of bread.
I also surmise that her sweet tooth was reinforced by her months at the school. She clearly agreed with Farmer’s dictum that “pastry cannot easily be excluded from the menu of the New Englander.”
She took pride in her food’s appearance as well as its taste and always wore a frilly apron when she dished up a meal. And she passed on her love of basic cookery to my mother, who passed it on to me.
As well as valuing its inherent usefulness, then, I cherish my Fannie Farmer Cookbook (actually cookbooks; I have four editions and hope to collect more) for the ways in which it connects me to other people. Something about this substantial volume of substantial foods brings my grandmother into the kitchen with me.
It also brings in my mother, who is a darn fine cook but who would be lost nevertheless without her 1965 edition of the cookbook.
It keeps me in conversation with my friend Pat Leuchtman, who favors the 1959 version. “I like it because it was my first cookbook—and because I never go away empty handed when I turn to it with a question,” she explains.
And of course it gives me the benefit of the wisdom of more than a century of experts on, and lovers of, cookery, from Fannie Farmer herself down to the current author, Marion Cunningham.
“Today, more than ever,” Cunningham wrote in the 1990 edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, “I sense a hankering for home cooking, for a personal connection to our food.”
To me Fannie Farmer helps provide that connection.
Fannie Farmer’s Pseufflé
This egg dish isn’t in the current edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, but it definitely appeared in the one with which I grew up. I think it was called American Cheese Fondue.
I have made it without the Creole seasoning (it wasn’t in the original recipe), but I like the little zing it adds to the recipe.
With or without extra zing the dish is what food writer and editor Judith Jones calls “nursery fare”: tasty comfort food that is easy to eat and digest. It uses ingredients that are almost always in the house, and it can be thrown together into a simple, satisfying supper very quickly.
It doesn’t puff up like a true soufflé–but it doesn’t deflate like one, either!
1 cup scalded milk
1/4 cup soft bread crumbs (I usually just crumble up bread)
1 cup small pieces of store (Cheddar) cheese
1 tablespoon sweet butter
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning or 1/2 teaspoon salt
3 egg yolks, beaten until they are thick
3 egg whites, beaten until they are stiff
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 1-1/2 quart casserole dish.
In a saucepan combine the milk, bread crumbs, cheese, butter, and seasoning. Cook, stirring, over low heat until the cheese and butter have melted and the mixture is relatively smooth. Remove from the heat.
Stir in the egg yolks; then gently fold in the egg whites. Don’t worry if some egg white remains visible.
Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish. Bake until much of the top turns a warm brown; this should take between 20 and 30 minutes. Serves 2 to 4, depending on appetite.

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19 Responses to “What Fannie Farmer Means to Me”

  1. jules says:

    I LOVE this post…AND the fact that your grandmother “studied” cooking under Fannie Farmer! I also find comfort in the fact that you own more cookbooks then you could ever use since purchasing new cookbooks is an addiction of sort for me.

  2. Flaneur says:

    On my last birthday, when I asked for a book that had meant a lot to you, I was pretty certain I would not be getting the automotive manual I longed for, but I was relieved to know wouldn’t be getting another copy of “Kent’s Commentaries on American Law”, either. You gave me the latest edition of Fannie Farmer. At the time I admired the very architecturally designed book jacket, looked at a sampling of recipes and placed the book on a shelf with the other cookbooks.

    I was somewhat put off by the way the recipes were organized, or rather with how the ingredients and the directions were organized. I realize that God had divided the world (well, American cooks) into four groups. The Joy People, the New York Times Clan, the Gourmet sect and the Fannie People. I had been raised in an orthodox Joy household with New York Times aspirations, and the new book (now that I had one in my house) suddenly seemed more foreign than ever. So for eight months I ignored the cookbook.

    Because of the bold architectural graphics I brought the cookbook to our apartment in Michigan: we were going for a strong almost monochromatic look in the place, and the cookbook would work with the interior – and who knew? – I might someday need a refresher course in what temperature was recommended for baking a potato. And then! Ken’s parents were coming for dinner; I’d promised roast leg of lamb and needed some guidance or at least an initial shove in the right direction. I read the relatively short but quite clear paragraph of instructions, marveled that there were precious few asides or that various conditions and sub-conditions were simply not there. By conditions I mean, the roasting time and temperature guidance was not specific in terms of boneless or bone-in, etc. I mean it basically said turn the oven on, put the roast in and then, take it out. Of course there was a simple calculation of weight and time, but I was skeptical that I’d really bring forth a perfectly rare-roasted leg of lamb in such a short time. A few other instructions were familiar from other lamb-addressing cookbook so I felt they (the Fannie farmer folks) weren’t entirely pulling my leg, so to speak.

    I felt as if I were skating on very thin ice by not even putting the roast in the oven until the guests had practically arrived. I had this vague notion that roasting was a very slow process. But I wasn’t roasting at an alarmingly high temperature either, so I was doubtful I’d have a roast ready in time for the main course (especially with resting time necessary as well). At any rate the dinner proceeded, and as I served the soup I removed the lamb from the oven. I didn’t even dare make a test incision with a sharp knife. I just said a quick prayer to the roasting gods and went back and joined Ken and his parents for soup.

    It was time to serve the lamb. Lo, and behold! That lamb was perfect. Perfect! Unbelievable. I swear I’ve never had such an easily prepared lamb with such breathtakingly simple instructions. That leg of lamb was the poster leg of lamb for perfectly done lamb. It was delicious. I still feel on unfamiliar territory when I look at Fannie Farmer recipes, but I am in awe of their ability to produce results. A few more forays into Fannie Farmer and I suspect I’ll have the confidence to become a regular user perhaps a convert. So here’s my question: is it true that Fannie Farmer devotees really boil water at a different temperature? Who cares? That lamb was a knockout!

  3. commonweeder says:

    If I could only eat cheese! However, Fannie Farmer, and Marion Cunningham have given me many wonderful dishes to enjoy ever since I received my first Fannie Farmer cookbook in 1958. Yikes! So long ago. I still use it although the cover and first few pages have been missing for years. It sits on the shelf next to the 13th edition. I think of all the brides who were given either the Joy of Cooking or Fannie Farmer as their first cookbook – and stay wed to that first instructor. I am still a Fannie Farmer girl. In my younger days I always turned to her when I didn’t know what to do with an ingredient – even something as simple, but exotic as a pomegranate.
    How wonderful to think of your grandmother studying cooking from the great one herself. Did you know that there is a charming children’s book by Deborah Hopkinson called Fanny in the Kitchen: The Whole Story from Soup to Nuts About How Fannie Farmer Invented Recipes with Precise Measurements?

  4. Krysia says:

    What a cool story!

  5. Betsy Kovacs says:

    Great piece!

    Funny. Despite having a mother who was trained as a chef, and loving to cook, I’ve never ever used Fannie! My basic Go-To Book is Joy.

    Aren’t there really just a few basic rules and recipes that form the foundation and all the rest is variations on a theme, the world over?

  6. Connie MacDonald says:

    When I got my first apartment, my mother gave me an early edition Fannie Farmer cookbook inscribed as follows: “Dear, Constance: Fannie Farmer is the ‘Basic Black’ of cookbooks. I wouldn’t dream of casting you adrift without it. Love, Mom”

    And, she was right. Twenty five years later, Fannie Farmer remains the Queen of the Go-To Recipe for me and my family.

  7. Grad says:

    I loved this post. Especially when you spoke of your love of cooking passed down from mother to daughter to granddaughter. I do not have The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, but I want one now. I am, however, on my 4th copy of Joy. I gave a copy to my Mom one Christmas. After my daughter graduated from college, she asked for her own copy. This Christmas, she gave a copy to her oldest and best friend – a new bride. These kitchen traditions are so good for feeding body and soul. My daughter will be moving to a new city soon. She’ll surely take her Kitchen Aid mixer, her Keurig coffee maker, and her Joy – long before the furniture gets shipped. Didn’t someone once say, “Eating well is the best revenge”? (Well, okay, I toyed with the original quote just a tiny bit.) Great post, Tink!

  8. tinkyweisblat says:

    Thanks, gang. I loved hearing from the “Joy of Cooking” fans; we all have our cooking Bibles. (Just for the Record, I do have several editions of “Joy of Cooking” myself.

    Jules, I’m so glad to hear there’s another crazy cookbook addict out there. Flaneur, I’m happy your roast worked out. (That’s what I love about Fannie–so plain, so workable.) Connie and Grad, your mother and daughter are obviously sisters of mine under the skin. Commonweeder, I haven’t seen the book, but it sounds great; I’ll look for it.

    As for Betsy’s comment–well, yes, as my neighbor Alice Parker says, music and cooking have a few basic formulas. Varying those formulas gives us creativity within structure: one of life’s greatest joys.

  9. Mattenylou says:

    Great post! I wonder what your Grandmother thought about her cooking school experience? What a wonderful opportunity she had at the time!

    I grew up with Mom and Fannie in our kitchen, too. I remember her old cookbook, but I was never able to find it after Mom died, perhaps it was tossed due to its rattiness along the way. I so wish I had it now.

    Hey, they are always on Ebay, even the oldies, and very reasonable…
    and Fannie is on Bartleby.com, too.

  10. tinkyweisblat says:

    Mattenylou–I’m sure you could find that old Fannie Farmer on EBay or at some used book service! Do give it a try…….

  11. janeP says:

    I love your blog! (And voted for it!) I have my grandmother’s original copy of “The Boston Cooking School Cookbook” by Fanny Farmer. What a treasure.


  12. tinkyweisblat says:

    What a wonderful legacy, Jane!

  13. Diana says:

    Loved the Fannie Farmer report! Inspiration to us all! Husband Sam swears by her!

  14. How amazing that your grandmother studied with Fannie Farmer! I came to the book late but got an old 1950’s edition from a friend. And I think Marion Cunningham is a goddess.

    I’m particularly fond of old cookbooks (or any cookbooks for that matter, we’ve got about 250 now). I think I may be the only American without a copy of Joy of Cooking. But I love my NY Times and refer to it all the time.

  15. Paula de Fougerolles says:

    Tinky–I love your extended musings on the history of various aspects of cooking. Always educational! Many thanks and keep it up!

  16. BARBARA TOOHEY says:

    I was delighted to find the recipe for American Cheese Fondue… I grew up with a mother who often cooked it and then I cooked it for my own children. When my paperback FF book fell apart, my husband bought me the new FF. I threw away the old one before checking thoroughly the new one. I was so frustrated that that American Fondue recipe was not in the new book. Thank you, thank you for reprinting it. By the way, I learned to cook using my mother’s 1908 Boston Cooking School cook book. I would sometimes drive my mother crazy with the recipes I wanted to try. I remember making doughnuts when I was in high school. The first ones weren’t great because I didn’t have a thermometer, but I eventually got it right and the last half of the batch were fantastic! I am now 71, and I wish I had my old book back.

  17. tinkyweisblat says:

    Barbara, I know that feeling exactly! I love and appreciate new editions of my favorite cookbooks, but something is always lost. I love the doughnut story………. Please come back!

  18. Rena says:

    I’ve begun a small collection of FF after finding an apron and recipe box from her school. Thank you for posting new information and photo of Fannie Farmer that I hadn’t seen or read. Great photo from the BPL. FF first worked as assistant to the director and replaced the director–didn’t know that: director’s name and those details of how she became vice-p then principal, thanks! I also collect cookbooks, yet cook mostly from combining google-searched recipes or relying on classic 1940s cookbooks for some reason!

  19. tinkyweisblat says:

    Recipe Collector, thank you. I hope you loved it. And Rena, I am impressed by your apron and recipe box! Thank you for visiting…..

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