Overlooked No More: Fannie Farmer, Modern Cookery’s Pioneer
Posted June 14, 2018 3:43 p.m. EDT
Updated June 14, 2018 3:46 p.m. EDT
Recipes in 19th-century cookbooks relied on measurements like a “handful” of rice or a “goodly amount” of molasses — on the assumption that women largely knew how to cook.
Fannie Merritt Farmer changed all that. Widely credited with inventing the modern recipe, Farmer was the first professional cook to insist that scientific methods and precise measurements — level teaspoons, cups and ounces — produce better food, and also the first to demonstrate that cooking classes could be mass-market entertainment.
These were just a few of her contributions as the foremost cooking teacher, writer and lecturer of her day. Chiefly, she was responsible for “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.” First published under her name in 1896, it was a best-seller and remains in print, with more than 7 million copies sold. The book’s popularity and longevity has made Farmer a primary source for generations of American cooks.
“Correct measurements are absolutely necessary to ensure the best results,” Farmer famously wrote.
Julia Child, one of the few American cooks to become as widely influential as Farmer, said “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book” was the primary reference in her own mother’s kitchen, and that she cut her teeth as a cook on its pancakes, popovers and fudge recipes.
Both women were famous as teachers and writers, not as brilliant cooks. Child and Farmer were considered unusual in their time: Both were ambitious, charismatic media titans; purveyors of domestic wisdom who led unconventional domestic lives; and privileged women from old New England families with a strong sense of how things ought to be done.
Born in Boston on March 23, 1857, Farmer was raised in nearby Medford by genteel but financially struggling parents, John Franklin Farmer, a printer and editor, and Mary Watson Merritt. A great-niece described them as “Unitarian and bookish.” The eldest of four daughters, Fannie planned to attend college and become a schoolteacher, one of the few professional avenues open to women at the time. But after she suffered some paralysis in her lower body at age 16, probably from polio, the prevailing medical wisdom dictated that she could not leave home or apply herself intellectually.
In her 20s, Farmer was finally allowed to work, becoming a kind of governess in the home of a wealthy family friend. It was her employer who encouraged Farmer to expand her culinary knowledge, according to Laura Shapiro, author of “Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century” (1986).
At 31, Farmer enrolled in the august Boston Cooking School, which was founded as a philanthropic venture to enable women of modest means to find work as cooks in private homes and institutions. Its stated promised was “to lift this great social incubus of bad cooking and its incident evils from the households of the country at large.” She joined the staff just after graduating, in 1889.
The concepts of “domestic science” and “home economics” were in their infancy, but these factors — bolstered by the work of women like Farmer, her colleagues Mary Lincoln and Maria Parloa and Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman to be admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — were shaping the field.
This new scientific approach to cooking made culinary expertise accessible to anyone willing to study. And as Farmer’s knowledge of food deepened throughout her career, she became a respected expert on the topic of diet and health.
She became a multimedia culinary force, a frequent figure on the lecture circuit whose weekly lectures were published in The Boston Evening Transcript. (She was one of the first women to lecture at Harvard Medical School.)
Her charisma and energy at the podium brought women of higher social strata under her sway, and she expanded her knowledge to encompass dishes for dinner parties, ladies’ luncheons and more.
In 1902, she started Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery, which was not only educational but also profitable, allowing her to buy land, build a house and support her parents, sisters and other family members.
She also acted as food editor for the influential magazine Women’s Home Companion and promoted standards of detail and precision that survive to this day.
Measuring cups and spoons were available, suggesting that she was not the inventor of such standards but rather an effective evangelist for them. And powerful new products like baking powder and compressed yeast were making precision in recipes much more important.
“I’m sure the fact that her cake and pie recipes actually worked was a huge part of her success,” Shapiro said in an interview.
Farmer died of complications of a stroke on Jan. 15, 1915. She was 57. Even after her death, her cookbook was frequently revised, most thoroughly and successfully in 1979 by Marion Cunningham, who took its classic recipes into the modern era.
Earlier books, including previous editions of the “Boston Cooking-School Cook Book,” assumed that all women were taught basic culinary skills at home and that they did not need to be told what pie dough should feel like or how to roast beef. But much of that changed after the Industrial Revolution. Traditional skills like preserving, cheese-making and bread-baking ebbed, and Boston and other cities became magnets for new kinds of Americans: single women, young people and immigrant families, all in need of homes, jobs and food.
Under a new name, “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” has sold 3 million more copies; many cooks still rely on it for basics like Parker House rolls, scalloped potatoes and waffles. (“The Joy of Cooking,” with its more cosmopolitan and friendly tone, gradually displaced the Farmer cookbook as the standard kitchen bible after it was published in 1931.)
But Farmer’s enduring legacy is a simple one: exactitude in cooking.
“She made it possible for any woman to put a meal on the table, even if she couldn’t cook at all,” Shapiro said. “There’s nothing more democratizing than that.”