American cooking would not be the same without Fannie Farmer. So who was she and how did she have this much impact? Fannie Merritt Farmer was born in 1857 in Medford, MA. After a childhood that included a paralyzing stroke, Farmer enrolled in the famous Boston Cooking School at the age of 30. The Boston Cooking School was known for teaching the science of cooking as well as its art, and it was here that Farmer's influence on the domestic sciences began. Farmer, considered one of the school's star alumna, became its principal in 1891, and in 1896 published The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (which was, to be fair, a revision of the earlier Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cook Book).
The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book was groundbreaking; in addition to almost 2,000 recipes, it contained direction on housekeeping, canning and preserving, nutrition and the science of cooking. It also contained exact measures, a convention that we take for granted but which was revolutionary at a time when recipes (or receipts, as they were often known) contained such direction as "about twenty-five drops of liquid," "a common-size tumbler" or (my favorite) "two jills." Curiously (except, perhaps, to writers), the publisher was not optimistic about the book's success and ordered a short run.
But The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book was successful both instantly and in the long-term. Still ranked as one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time, the book was as fundamental to a homestead in its heyday as Better Homes and Gardens, Betty Crocker or Martha Stewart are to ours today. Almost every bride got a copy upon launching housekeeping. The book was so popular that it became known, as it still is, as simply The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.
The Fannie Farmer Cookbook is now in its thirteenth edition. Since 1979, the editor has been no less than Marion Cunningham, and in my dog-eared edition, the introduction was written by James Beard. It is impossible to estimate or overstate the importance of this cookbook to American home economics. When asked to recommend the best basic cookbook, many cooks -- myself included -- instantly name Fannie Farmer. It contains recipes and techniques for everything from shrimp wiggle to tipsy pudding, from boiled eggs to London Broil, from catsup to cioppino.
Ironically, though, perhaps the most surprised at the longevity and influence of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook would have been Farmer herself. She left the Boston Cooking School to found her own academy, where her work -- motivated, perhaps, by her childhood illness -- led her to focus on nutrition for the ill. A lesser known, but no less influential, Fannie Farmer cookbook -- Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent -- led Farmer to adjunct status at Harvard Medical School, teaching diet and nutrition. She believed she would be remembered for her work in that field, and was reportedly preparing lectures -- and, one hopes, something good to eat -- up to ten days before her death in 1915.
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