Fannie Merritt Farmer – Mother of the American Cookbook


When a person, whether a foodie or just someone appreciative of good, well prepared food, thinks of delicious, innovative meals, the name Fannie Merritt Farmer springs to mind. Her story is one of determination in teaching the public that one did not have to be a professional chef to live an ideal life in the kitchen and around the house.

Bostonian Fannie Merritt Farmer (b.23 March 1857) was the eldest of the four daughters born to a strong Unitarian family headed by John Franklin Merritt and Mary Ann Watson. Her parents strongly believed in a sound education for their girls and it was a given that each of them would complete college. Unfortunately for her, Fannie, while still in high school, suffered a paralytic stroke in her left leg, possibly an after effect of polio. Treated as an invalid for several years, she was not allowed to return to school.

30-year-old Farmer, not wishing to spend her remaining years languishing in bed, hired herself out as a mother’s helper to a prominent family friend, Mrs. Charles Shaw. Mrs. Shaw urged Fannie to enroll herself in classes at the Boston Cooking School so that she might become a professional cooking instructor. Founded in 1879 by the Woman’s Education Association of Boston, the school emphasized a more intellectual, structured approach to the preparation of food and attention to diet, and in the course of time, women gained elevated status not merely as cooks, but as educated cooking instructors and authorities on health, whether it be for the normally healthy but also for the chronically ill in its guise as a post-Civil War school founded by philanthropists and reformers. Working-class women were given a chance to enter the professional work force when the job market for women was not at its optimum. With an emphasis on science and domestic skills, the Boston Cooking-School discretely encouraged upper-class women to learn a “respectable” means of supporting themselves in case of reversal of fortunes or demise of the husband. Mrs. Mary Johnson Lincoln, following the collapse of her husband’s finances, was one such of these women. Becoming a cooking teacher of renowned and the author of the original edition of the Boston Cooking School Cookbook, she was an inspiration to Fannie Farmer. Farmer completed the school’s 2-year program in 1889 and went on to become Assistant Principal and then Principal in 1891.

Fannie Farmer’s first cookbook,a revised version of Mrs. Lincoln-s book, The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, was published in 1896 and is still in print now. It was based on Mrs. Lincoln’s school recipes, without giving Lincoln credit for them. Farmer’s edition was concise and simple, with comprehensive scope. Its selling point was in how well food science was mixed with appealing recipes. Farmer’s book formed a systematic overview of cooking. The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook left, without a doubt, Fannie Farmer a woman of generous means. Because the publisher was leery of taking on a business venture designed by a women, they insisted that she pay all the initial printing costs. Because of this one-sided attitude, Farmer ended up retaining the copyright and profits and was in the position, if she chose, to make some men very uncomfortable for doubting her business acumen.

In 1902, Farmer left her position so she might open Miss Farmer’s School of Cooking. Here she placed greater emphasis on teaching housewives and society matrons. Her new goal was to concentrate on healthy diets for the sick and the chronically ill, or disabled patients. Farmer was involved in training hospital dietitians and nurses as well as regularly lecturing at the Harvard Medical School. Farmer also published, in 1904, what she considered her magnus corpus: Food and Cooking for the Sick and Convalescent. Topics she touched upon here ranged from the breast feeding of infants to the consumption of alcohol to virtually a treatise on diabetes, while cajoling her readers to make pretty food presentations for the ill: serve a heart-shaped bread and butter sandwich on a delicate flowered dish rather than carelessly throwing down a chunk of bread and a ball of butter. She felt aesthetics helped the patient to make a quicker recovery.

For the remaining years of her life, Farmer continued to lecture throughout the country. Towards the end, she suffered two more strokes and was forced to return to her wheelchair. She lectured up to ten days before she died (15 January 1915). Her school continued to flourish under the leadership of Alice Bradley, until it closed in 1944.

If for nothing else, Fannie Merritt Farmer was revered by millions for her innovations in the manner in which a recipe was written. She standardized the size of measurements so that a cup was always a cup, no matter what substance was being measured. This brought a great deal more of accuracy so that theoretically, the recipe could be duplicated each and every time without all the guesswork that was expected, that little element of surprise! Her successes led to the public calling her the “mother of level measurements” or “the pioneer of the modern recipe.”

NEXT INSTALLMENT: Lizzie Black Kander created the famous cookbook that has been used for the last 100 years by all strata of American society. Originally written to teach newly arrived immigrants how to properly fit in with turn-of-the-century (20th) Milwaukee, these young women learned how to do everything domestic, from baking to cleaning in a manner equal to that of a well-assimilated resident. From this book sprang the famous Milwaukee Settlement House and its even more renown cookbook.

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