Fannie Merritt Farmer – Mother of the American Cookbook

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When a person, whether a foodie or someone who appreciates delicious, well-prepared food, thinks of delicious, innovative meals, the name Fannie Merritt Farmer comes to mind. Her story is one of determination to educate the public that one doesn’t have to be a professional chef to live an ideal life in the kitchen and around the house.

Bostonian Fannie Merritt Farmer (born March 23, 1857) was the eldest of four daughters in a strong Unitarian family headed by John Franklin Merritt and Mary Ann Watson. Her parents were firm believers in giving their daughters a good education, and it was a given that each of them completed college. Unfortunately for her, Fanny suffered a stroke that paralyzed her left leg while she was still in high school, possibly the effects of polio. For several years, she was treated as disabled and was not allowed to return to school.

Not wanting to spend the rest of her life in bed, Farmer, 30, hired herself as a mother’s helper to a prominent family friend, Mrs. Charles Shaw. Mrs. Shaw urges Fannie to sign up for classes at Boston Cooking School so she can become a professional cooking teacher. Founded in 1879 by the Boston Women’s Educational Association, the school emphasized a smarter, more methodical approach to food preparation and attention to eating, and over time women gained higher status not only as cooks but as educated The chef attained higher status as a post-Civil War school founded by philanthropists and reformers, lecturers and authorities on health, both in the judgment of the normally healthy and of the chronically ill. When the female job market is not at its best, working-class women have the opportunity to enter the professional workforce. Emphasizing science and domestic skills, the Boston Cooking School carefully encouraged upper-class women to learn a “respectable” way to support themselves in case of a reversal of fortune or the death of a husband. Mrs. Mary Johnson Lincoln was one of those women after her husband’s financial situation collapsed. As a renowned cooking teacher and author of the original Boston Cookbook, she is the inspiration for Fannie Farmer. Farmer completed the school’s 2-year program in 1889 and became assistant principal and principal in 1891.

Fannie Farmer’s first cookbook, Mrs. Fannie Farmer’s revised edition. Lincoln’s book, The Boston Cookbook, was published in 1896 and is still in print. It is according to Mrs. Lincoln’s school cookbook, but does not give Lincoln credit. The farmer’s version is concise and clear, and covers a wide range. Its selling point is how well food science is combined with appealing recipes. The Farmer’s Book forms a systematic overview of cooking. There’s no doubt that the Boston Cooking School recipes made Fannie Farmer a generous woman. Because the publishers were wary of taking on a business venture designed by a woman, they insisted that she pay for all initial printing costs. Because of this one-sided approach, Farmer ended up keeping the rights and the profits, if she wanted to, putting her in a position that would make some men who doubted her business acumen very uncomfortable.

In 1902, Farmer left her position so that she could open Miss Farmer’s Cooking School. Here, she places more emphasis on teaching housewives and social housewives. Her new goal is to focus on healthy eating for the sick and those with chronic diseases or disabilities. Farmer is involved in training hospital dietitians and nurses and regularly lectures at Harvard Medical School. Farmer also published in 1904 what she considered to be her large collection of essays: Food and Cooking for the Sick and Convalescent. Here she touches on topics ranging from infant breastfeeding to alcohol consumption to almost a dissertation on diabetes, while coaxing her readers into making beautiful food presentations for the sick: a heart-shaped loaf of bread atop delicate flowers and Butter a sandwich plate instead of accidentally dropping a hunk of bread and a dollop of butter. She feels aesthetics help patients recover faster.

For the remainder of her life, Farmer continued to lecture across the country. Eventually, she suffered two more strokes and was forced back into a wheelchair. She gave lectures ten days before her death (January 15, 1915). Her school continued to flourish under the leadership of Alice Bradley until it closed in 1944.

If nothing else, Fannie Merritt Farmer is revered by millions for his innovations in the way he writes cookbooks. She standardized the measurements so that no matter what substance was being measured, a cup would always be a cup. This leads to greater accuracy, so theoretically the recipe can be replicated every time without all the expected guesswork, that little element of surprise! Her success led the public to call her the “mother of standard measurements” or “the pioneer of the modern cookbook.”

Next issue: Lizzie Black Kander wrote the famous cookbook that has been used by all walks of life in the US for the past 100 years. Originally designed to teach newcomers how to properly acclimate to turn-of-the-century (20th century) Milwaukee, these young women learned how to do household chores, from baking to cleaning, in the same manner as well-assimilated residents. From this book was born the famous Milwaukee Settlement House and its even more famous cookbook.

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