I hadn’t heard of Fannie Merritt Farmer until I picked up a copy her cookbook – one of millions printed – at Presbyterian Church a couple years ago during Dresden’s town-wide yard sale.
I remember the two women at the time, chuckling at my purchase. I had the impression at the time that they were either skeptical of my culinary skills or viewed my choice as being out of fashion.
Fannie, however, may never go out of fashion and remains as relevant today as she ever was. Having referenced her cooking book numerous times over the past months, I’ve found the recipes live up to their reputation as having been “tried and tested” – Fannie’s words – something of a rarity with today’s cookbooks that are published primarily as entertainment rather than to be used in a practical way.
Julia Child, please step to one side. Martha Stewart, incarceration suited you. Miss Farmer rules.
Born in 1857, Fannie had a rough start to life. Ill health, in what was described as a paralytic stroke, took her out of school. Her parents (people of some means it would seem) later enrolled her in the Boston School of Cooking where she evidently excelled. Upon graduation in 1889, she was asked to stay on as the assistant director and five years later headed the school despite the continuing fragile state of her health.
In 1902, Fannie and the Boston School of Cooking, an institution founded by the Women’s Educational Association of Boston, parted ways and Fannie spent a year at Harvard and also founded Miss Farmers’ School of Cookery.
The Boston School of Cooking, incidentally, was folded into Simmons College, now Simmons University, where food and nutrition remain an important part of the educational programming.
The cookbook that would earn her so much fame was first published in 1896 with 10 editions following before Fannie’s passing at the age of 57. Revised editions continued to be published on an almost yearly basis, including my 1951 edition, The New Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.
Fannie is credited with having helped developed (she certainly played a pivotal role in popularizing) the system of standard measurements for cooking. She also goes to considerable length to describe ingredients, cooking utensils, methodology and information about planning ahead for family or guests.
She also understood the importance of food to healthy living.
Here is what she had to say in the preface to the first edition: “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. Then mankind will eat to live, will be able to do better mental and physical work, and disease will be less frequent.”
Fannie’s book has become my go-to place to back up my decisions when I cook from scratch and am not entirely sure of the steps to be taken. I’ve also followed quite closely a number of her recipes and have yet to have register a disaster when having done so.
There are literally hundreds of recipes contained in my volume, nearly 900 pages in length. The recipes reflect what foods were widely available at the turn of the 20th century and seasonal patterns of consumption. As such, Fannie remains an important voice today, a time when a large part of the population supports ideas like “eating local” and “the 100-mile diet”.
Her cook book is also a good fit with our backyard garden. When there’s a large flush of any particular vegetable or small fruit, I turn to Fannie. She’ll know that to do. ◊