Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 1896
Today, we largely think of recipes as simple or at least straightforward: ingredients, what to do, time, temperature, and so on, follow the path and you’ll be OK. Which sometimes leads to frustration when for some reason – never yours – it doesn’t work. And yet for a long time, it wasn’t often like that, until a remarkable woman from Massachusetts helped to codify much of what we take for granted in recipes and cooking.
Is there a more soul-shriveling question than this: What do you want for dinner tonight? (Shudder.) We all have to eat, and much as we often like to think about food, that doesn’t mean we have time or ability to think about it, so we fall back on the old stand-bys. For us, that’s red lentil soup, meatloaf, salmon…when things are really dire, pasta, and then there’s always take out, delivery or god forbid something frozen. Now and then, I’ll get inspired and crack open a book or go online and try to find a new recipe that doesn’t sound impossible or require 3 things I’ve never heard of and wouldn’t know where to get.
Today, we largely think of recipes as simple or at least straightforward: ingredients, what to do, time, temperature, and so on, follow the path and you’ll be OK. Which sometimes leads to frustration when for some reason – never yours – it doesn’t work. And yet for a long time, it wasn’t often like that, until a remarkable woman from Massachusetts helped to codify much of what we take for granted in recipes and cooking and helped to change how, and perhaps why, we think about food.
A document that changed the world: The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, written by Fannie Merrill Farmer, later known as the “Fannie Farmer cookbook,” 1896.
I’m Joe Janes of the University of Washington Information School, and for this episode I don’t have to go any further for inspiration than my dining room bookshelf to find my grandmother’s Fannie Farmer; it’s a 1915 printing of a revised 2nd edition from 1906, inscribed to her as a Christmas present from her father when she was 17. I also have my mom’s somewhat spiffier copy, from the ‘50s. This is so often the way of these things; cookbooks are used, shared, passed down, smudged, spilled on, stained, written on, occasionally destroyed and eventually the best ones become part of the family. Witness the Betty Crocker where I found my favorite molasses oatmeal cookie recipe, which my friend Bryan and I tried out in high school and in the process trashed the kitchen, a story my mother never tired of telling at my expense.
Cookbooks are ancient, as are recipes (from the Latin word that also gives us “receipt;” “recipe” entered English first as a formula for compiling medicine, a century before its culinary sense). Old ones, though, are almost always in rudimentary form: take 6 figs and a cow, boil until done, that sort of thing. The first known printed cookbook is De Honesta Voluptate et Valentudine, “On honorable pleasure and health” published in 1474 by one Bartolomeo Platina, jailed by one pope (for something) and made Vatican librarian by the next. The first American cookbook appears to be, appropriately, American Cookery from 1796 by Amelia Simmons; in its second edition, she apologies for what she thinks might have been intentional errors in the first, added by her ghostwriter to sabotage her, but it sold, and like so many other cookbooks then and now, borrowed from other sources without bothering with a lot of attribution. If you think about it, many of the earliest American stories are around food, including the near-starvation of the early settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth and of course the Thanksgiving story made possible by the help provided by indigenous peoples to the newcomers in adapting their familiar European recipes to native ingredients. And everybody lived happily ever after, right?
Over time, cookbooks grew more sophisticated, mirroring improvements in publishing. Straight narrative gives way to graphics, then black and white photographs, then color. Recipes have also been doled out in booklets, promotional forms, binders, not to mention the ubiquitous 3x5 cards, eventually CDs, and now a myriad of online forms. They also reflect their times and places and can be valuable sources for social history, telling us about what foods were available, equipment, measurements, fuels, even methods of cleaning, and the rituals of serving and eating.” Mostly, cooking has been passed down by example or imitation; as one author puts it, they’re “the scarce, flawed, irreplaceable records” of the voices of untold numbers of cooks, mostly “illiterate or bound by trade secrets…convey[ing] craft skills and cultural traditions.”
Around the turn of the 20th century in America, we see the rise of what became the “domestic science” movement, which emerged from greater attention to food and nutrition, an acknowledgement that eating well was key to good health and perhaps the solution of other social ills in a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing country. It was also an earnest attempt to provide greater opportunity to young women to undertake professional careers as cooks. One example is the Boston Cooking School, founded in 1879 by the Women’s Educational Association, and headed by Mary Johnson Lincoln. It catered not only to women of means to help them supervise their staffs; they also offered affordable courses, and even free classes in the largely immigrant North End; Ellen Richards, the first woman to earn a degree from MIT, lectured on food chemistry.
Eight years later, a 30-year-old Fannie Merritt Farmer, prevented from attending college after what was likely an attack of polio as a child which left her difficulty in walking for the rest of her life, entered the school at the encouragement of her employer aspiring to eventually become a teacher of cooking. And did she ever. Upon graduating in 1889 she was asked to stay on as assistant principal, and took over the school five years later until 1902 when she left to found her own. She is universally described as an engaging and infectious teacher and presenter, including lecturing at Harvard Medical School on the importance of nutrition on convalescence, a topic she returned to repeatedly in her teaching and writing, perhaps because of her own ongoing mobility impairments.
In 1896, the year of La Boheme, the first modern Olympic Games, and the discovery of helium and radioactivity, Fannie publishes her first cookbook running to some 1800 recipes; Little, Brown wasn’t confident in its success so she had to pony up for the printing costs for the first run of 3000 copies, and cannily retained the copyright which yielded a tidy profit as it took off, eventually selling in the millions. Yes, in fact, Fannie’s book is a reworking of an 1884 book by Mrs. Lincoln, which apparently was dull as dishwater; she was rightly criticized for that, but as we all know, history is written (or eaten) by the winners. Fannie used the first person and an informal voice, and as one biographer says, seems to be one of the few cookbook authors of the day who really enjoyed eating.
Her first sentence tells you a lot: “Food is necessary for growth, repair, and energy,” which is followed almost immediately by a chemical breakdown of the human body, thus indicating what kinds and amounts of food were most necessary. She goes on in similarly simple but effective ways; highlighted by a systematic, thorough, thoughtful tone. On page 17 we learn how to build a fire, and on page 25 we get what many consider among her major contributions: a painstaking and specific set of instructions about measurements, of ingredients dry, liquid and otherwise, continually stressing the importance of being methodical and purposeful, using standardized spoons and cups and level measurement techniques, and yet makes it all seem engaging and easy to prepare.
The first actual “recipe” is how to make tea; the book’s structure and form are very familiar to us today: breads, biscuits, cereals (including “macaroni”), eggs, soups, fish, beef, lamb, and so on, to several chapters on desserts, then chapter 37 on Helpful Hints for the Young Homemaker, followed by sample menus with pictures.
So apart from being the “mother of level measurements” what did Fannie Farmer give us? In her preface, she says she’s trying not only to provide a set of yummy recipes, but also “that it may awaken an interest through its condensed scientific knowledge which will lead to deeper thought and broader study of what to eat.” Her aim, she later says, “is to elevate cookery to its proper place as a science and an art.”
She helped to promote and change not just thinking about food but thinking about food. Today, with cable cooking channels and blogs, reality programs, umpteen magazines, celebrity chefs, people Instagramming pictures of meals, the whole foodie culture, I think she succeeded beyond her wildest imaginings. The structure and form of what we think of today as a recipe owes a great deal to her influence, though as technology continues to evolve, this might change as well. Videos and apps on a laptop or smartphone can depict and demonstrate processes and techniques in ways that words on paper can’t always get across, so the means by which the practice of cooking might be codified and thought about are changing yet again, which I think would make Fannie very happy indeed.