Thursday, March 20, 2008
Fannie Merritt Farmer, Boston Cooking School’s esteemed graduate, director, and the author of its best-selling cookbook, The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, was born on this day in 1857.
Within just a few years of graduating from the Boston Cooking School, Farmer became its director and in that role she revised the school’s previous cookbook, Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cook Book written by her former teacher Mary J. Lincoln in 1883. Farmer's The Boston Cooking- School Cook Book was published by Little Brown in 1896 and was an immediate hit. The book not only cemented Farmer’s reputation as a thorough and creative cook, but also forever labelled her as the “Mother of Level Measurements.” Farmer strongly believed that one could not produce consistent results with vague instructions and her book was the first to insist that measurements be leveled with a knife or spatula. Gone were instructions for heaping tablespoons or scant teaspoons. As Farmer writes “A cupful is measured level. A tablespoon is measured level. A teaspoon is measured level.”
Farmer eventually left the Boston Cooking School in 1902, yet she continued to lecture and write. Her Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent in 1904 was a particularly personal cookbook for Farmer. When she was in high school Fannie was taken ill with a sickness (most likely polio) which not only kept her bedridden for months, but also ruled out any college prospects and left her with a permanent limp. Food and Cookery (the 1912 edition is available in the full-text via Google Books) promotes a healthy diet “from infancy to old age” with the emphasis on nutritional values and digestibility. One glance at the first few pages and one knows Farmer was serious about the subject. In addition to elaborate diagrams of the stomach and intestine, Farmer covers the chemical breakdowns of various foods and also includes tips on making food more palatable to the patient. Farmer wanted others to receive better treatment than she herself had received as a young woman.
Fannie Merritt Farmer died on January 15, 1915.
In addition to the 1896 edition, the Library has a number of facsimiles and later editions of the Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, as well as her later writings. We also have Marion Cunningham’s wonderful Fannie Farmer Cookbook.
Farmer’s contribution to American cooking cannot be underestimated. Her sophisticated recipes somewhat belie her scientific approach to cooking, which reminds me of my favorite Vermont “Farmer” Christopher Kimball who, to many people, has created something of his own Boston Cooking School via Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen. Something about Boston brings out the precise measurements in people.
For more information on Fannie Farmer, please consult the indispensable Perfection Salad by Laura Shapiro.
(These muffins are a favorite of my colleague (and wonderful cook) Jessica Pigza.)
(Adapted from Marion Cunningham’s Fannie Farmer Cookbook)
1 ½ cups flour
2 T. sugar
4 t. baking powder
½ t. salt
½ cup milk
1 egg, well beaten
2 T. butter, melted
1 cup cooked oatmeal
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter the muffin pans. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl stir the milk, egg, and butter into the oatmeal. Stir until well-blended. Combine the two mixture and mix well. Spoon each muffin cup two-thirds full of batter. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out dry when inserted in center.
Rice Griddle Cakes
(from Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cookbook)
2 ½ cups flour
½ cup cold cooked rice
1 T. baking powder
½ t. salt
¼ cup sugar
1 ½ cups milk
2 T. melted butter
Mix and sift dry ingredients. Work in rice with tips of fingers; add egg well-beaten, milk, and butter. Drop by spoonfuls on a greased hot griddle; cook on one side. When puffed, full of bubbles, and cooked on edges, turn, and cook other side. Serve with butter and maple syrup.