Thursday, January 7, 2016

This Day in Boston, 1896, Fannie Farmer's Cookbook is Published - Still a Best Seller

Fannie Farmer is still America's most famous cook.
Today marks the 120th anniversary of the singular cookbook that taught generations of Americans how to cook. First published on January 7th, 1896, as The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer, later on known as Fannie Farmer's Cookbook, this book was much more than a mere collection of hundreds of recipes. It was an educative revolution in cooking.
The book actually sought to teach its readers how to cook, and what to eat. Included in the book were “lessons” on choosing foods and the science behind their best use and preparation. Through studying this book novice cooks could learn why to choose one vegetable over another, what makes milk turn sour, and why the temperature of the oil used in frying was crucial to the outcome of the dish. Simple recipes and instructions taught the basics of good cooking and proper nutrition. For more experienced cooks there were hundreds of more challenging recipes to expand their skills and palates.
Fannie’s book gave detailed instructions on achieving the correct temperature in an iron stove by proper selection of coal, soft wood like pine, and various hardwoods, along with adjusting the flue and damper and controlling the amount of oxygen for precise results. Fannie also taught her readers that there was actual science involved in cooking and baking. She was the first to give instruction on ensuring results by using standardized measuring cups and spoons to accurately measure ingredients.
In 1889 Fannie would graduate from The Boston Cooking School (Boston's first,) which was founded 10 years earlier by the Woman’s Educational Association of Boston in order “to offer instruction in cooking to those who wished to earn their livelihoods as cooks, or who would make practical use of such information in their families.” Fannie studied under Mary J. Lincoln, who researched and wrote Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book: What to Do and What Not to Do in Cooking.

Miss Farmer teaches pupil Martha Hayes Ludden about precise measuring to achieve consistent results.

At The Boston Cooking School, Fannie had begun to understand the association between eating certain foods and maintaining good health. She then took a nutrition course at Harvard Medical School to learn as much as she could about healthful eating and proper preparation of foods. Having been one of the top students at the cooking school, Fannie would become assistant director there shortly after her graduation, and would go on to become head of the school a few years later. Meanwhile, she continued to study food and the science behind cooking at every opportunity.
Fannie began revising and expanding Mrs. Lincoln’s cookbook, building on her teacher’s detailed and methodical approach to recipe writing, and presenting a thorough discussion on the careful measurement of each ingredient in a recipe. In 1896, when Miss Farmer approached the publisher Little, Brown & Company with her book, The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, they didn’t think it would do very well, so they would commit only to printing a limited run of 3,000 copies, and only if Fannie would cover the costs. It turned out to be the best-selling cookbook of the era, with over 4 million copies sold in Fannie's lifetime, and it remains a perennial favorite today. In the 120 years it has been on the shelves, Fannie Farmer's Cookbook has never been out of print.

Fannie Farmer's lectures were very popular despite the 30 cent admission.
After a number of years running The Boston Cooking School, Fannie left in 1902 to open her own Miss Farmer's School of Cookery, also in Boston, aimed toward training housewives rather than household service staff, professional cooks or teachers.
Together with her sister, Cora Farmer Perkins, Fannie also wrote a regular column for the Woman's Home Companion. Her cooking demonstrations and lectures became widely known, costing 30 cents for admission to the morning session and 25 cents in the evenings, as shown in the ad from this unknown periodical. The Boston Evening Transcript published her lectures, which were printed in newspapers all across the country.
In the preface to her cookbook, our Miss Farmer writes “At the earnest solicitation of educators, pupils, and friends, I have been urged to prepare this book, and I trust it may be a help to many who need its aid. It is my wish that it may not only be looked upon as a compilation of tried and tested recipes, but that it may awaken an interest through its condensed scientific knowledge which will lead to deeper thought and broader study of what to eat.”
The book was rather an education in cooking and nutrition, as well as keeping house, all bound in a single volume of 39 chapters, hundreds of pages, and hundreds of recipes from simple sauces and condiments to an elegant 12 course meal. The table of contents alone was 22 pages!
The book has been updated quite a bit from time to time as the field of cooking has evolved, with nearly 900 pages in the current edition, and roughly 1,900 recipes. After all, the way to make a classic veal stock hasn't changed, nor the way to debone a chicken, nor the proportions of flour, sugar and butter in a pound cake. Many of the original recipes remain in the book, unaltered, along with new ones.
I found Fannie Farmer’s recipe for Cape Cod Oatmeal Cookies on several websites, including Just a Pinch Recipes, written by Debby Nelson, who writes “This recipe is from an old Fannie Farmer Cookbook I bought not long after I married. My Dad and my husband loved them so I would make them every year at Christmas and in-between. They are chewy and nourishing. Give them a try!”


I also found these cookies at Lynne Feifer’s 365 Days of Baking and More, where she challenged herself to bake something every day for a year and write about it on the Internet. This recipe also popped up at full tummies, where, for nearly eight years now, someone known only as Betsy has been writing about healthful, nutritious food choices and sharing recipes that “our whole family loves!” Both Lynne and Debby found this excellent, very popular cookie recipe still in the current incarnation, the 13th edition of Fannie Farmer's Cookbook, which was published 20 years ago, in 1996, celebrating the book’s 100th anniversary that year.
Click this link to find Fannie’s Last Supper, an excellent video that just may make you want to cook. It's a teaser for the 2007 PBS documentary of the same name, following folks who decided to throw a dinner party recreating the 12 course meal in Fannie's cookbook using only a wood stove to cook on. Now I'm looking for the DVD of that program, because that's something I'd like to see.
In the meantime, I'll settle for a plate of Cape Cod Oatmeal Cookies from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Thank you, Miss Farmer!


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