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Fannie Merritt Farmer taught cooks how to measure-up

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The oldest of four daughters born to John Franklin Farmer, a master printer, and Mary Watson Merritt, Fannie Merritt Farmer began life in Boston, Massachusetts on March 23, 1857. The Farmer parents valued a good education and foresaw their girls receiving college degrees. Those plans changed for Fannie when she was 16. Due to suffering a paralytic stroke while a student at Medford High School, she was bedridden for months and remained an invalid for years.

In time, Fannie did regain the ability to walk, though she retained a limp the rest of her life. Fannie slowly began to help out around the house, but it would be several years before she would be able to contribute to the household finances.

When she was able to work, Fannie was employed by the Shaw family and developed a strong interest in cooking. By the time she was 31, Fannie’s physical condition showed a remarkable improvement and both her parents and the Shaws encouraged Fannie to enroll in cooking school.

Fannie was 30 years old when she enrolled in the Boston Cooking School per the suggestion of a friend. She studied under Mary J. Lincoln until 1889, during the time referred to as the “domestic science movement.” The school’s curriculum involved much more than learning how to make a great sauce or bake the perfect cake. It also included cleaning and sanitation methods and household management. Fannie graduated at the top of her class and was hired by the school as an assistant to the director, Carrie M. Dearborn. Following Ms. Dearborn's death in 1891, she became the school’s principal.

In 1896, Fannie became a published author. Her best-known work, The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, introduced the use of standardized measuring cups and spoons to a world of cooks who had previously measured ingredients with a “pinch,” “handful,” and “heaping cup”. The book contained 1,850 recipes, ranging from milk toast to Zigaras à la Russe, an elegant puff-pastry dish. There was also information about nutrition, food preservation (drying and canning), and housekeeping/cleaning.

When the book was first released, the publisher (Little, Brown & Company) was pessimistic about its future popularity; thus the first edition was limited to 3,000 copies. Fannie’s attitude was much more optimistic; so much so, she paid to have it published. Her optimism paid off. The book was highly popular throughout America and later editions wore the title, Fannie Farmer Cookbook. More than 100 years later, the book is still in print.

Fannie’s cookbook contains more than just recipes. Science lessons explain the chemical process food undergoes during cooking and a standardized measuring system is included. Prior to the book, rather than saying “2 tablespoons (T) butter,” a recipe might call for “a piece of butter the size of an egg”. Her instructions stated, “A tablespoonful is measured level. A teaspoonful is measured level.” This degree of accuracy earned Fannie the nickname, “mother of level measurements.”

On August 23, 1902, Fannie established Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery. The course of study was creative and inventive, designed to emphasize the practice of cooking rather than theory. Intended to educate housewives rather than to prepare teachers; the curriculum included the rudiments of plain and fancy cooking. At the same time, Fannie’s deep-set interest was teaching her students how to care for the ill through the use of diet and nutrition.

Fannie’s next book was titled, Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent. It led to her receiving an invitation to lecture at Harvard Medical School and becoming an instructor to doctors and nurses regarding convalescent nutrition and diet. She understood how important it was to use appearance and taste in an effort to tempt the palate of patients who had poor appetites; thereby enticing the patients to consume the nutrition the food offered.

Fannie’s physical condition forced her to spend the last seven years of her life in a wheelchair. Though relatively immobile now due to suffering another paralytic stroke, Fannie pressed on. She continued to invent recipes, give lectures and write. Her last lecture was delivered 10 days before she died. The Boston Evening Transcript published her lectures, and articles about her appeared in newspapers nationwide.

Fannie was 57 years old when she died on January 15, 1915. To a large number of American chefs, the name “Fannie Farmer” is still synonymous with precision, organization and good food.

In 1979, Fannie Farmer’s Cookbook was completely updated by Marion Cunningham; thereby making Fannie’s name a household word for a new generation of cooks. The new book contains forthright tips, along with comments, to help instill confidence in those just learning to cook; in addition to inspiring the more adventurous and seasoned individual. Preserving the best of Fannie’s methods and favorite recipes, Marion also includes a number of lost treasures; among them Carpetbag Steak, Indian Pudding and Anadama Bread. She rounds it out with lessons on how to make a good cup of coffee and the proper way to brew tea.

* * * * *

Cookery means the knowledge of Medea and of Circe and of Helen and of the Queen of Sheba.… It means much testing and no wasting; it means English thoroughness and French art and Arabian hospitality; and, in fine, it means that you are to be perfectly and always ladies—loaf givers.” Fannie Farmer

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