Share this article

print logo

Fannie Farmer's legacy lives on in kitchens everywhere

Fannie Merritt Farmer was an influential New England cooking teacher with a flair for marketing and promotion whose 1896 "The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book" and myriad subsequent editions have made her a household name for more than a century.

Often called the "mother of level measurements" for her insistence on the use of measuring cups and spoons in cooking and in recipes, Farmer shaped the appetites of a nation through her cookbook. She offered a tantalizing mix of traditional Yankee favorites and "exotic" continental dishes, many rooted in the cooking of France. Framing her language and concepts in scientific terms, she sought to lift cooking from the dangerous drudgery of ages past into the bright, shining domestic science fit for the 20th century then being born.

Farmer's ambitions were plain in the preface: "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 woman had vision -- and gumption. Born in 1857 in Boston, she was stricken at 17 with what the Boston Globe once called "a stroke of paralysis" -- many read that as polio. She fought to regain use of her body and, at 30, entered the Boston Cooking School as a pupil. She rose to become the school's principal in just a few years. Faced with a skittish publisher, Farmer took on the cost of publishing the book herself -- shrewdly retaining the rights. Farmer opened her own school in 1902; the Boston Cooking School folded shortly thereafter. And she wrote five more cookbooks while revising the first.

"She was absolutely the most successful businesswoman," said Chris Kimball of Cook's Illustrated and "America's Test Kitchen" fame. He wrote "Fannie's Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal From Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook."

"Fannie wasn't the best cook; she admitted she wasn't," Kimball added. "She was a promoter, a businesswoman, a force of nature."

Farmer died in 1915, at age 57. But her story did not end there. In 1919, a new candy company named itself Fanny Farmer. Her original cookbook lived on through several editions. The task fell to the family of Farmer's sister, Cora D. Perkins. Cora's daughter-in-law, Wilma Lord Perkins, edited "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" for more than 40 years.

Rights to the cookbook were eventually sold, leading to a dramatic intervention in the 1970s by Judith Jones, the legendary Knopf editor whose authors included Julia Child. For Jones, who grew up with only one cookbook -- Farmer's -- in the house, the book had lost its character.

"Nobody who was a real cook was guiding it," Jones recalled. She tapped James Beard's assistant Marion Cunningham to revamp Farmer's book. Cunningham's 1979 revision was such a success it helped make the reputation of this food world insider while reinforcing Farmer's.

Other books over the years have been spun off from Farmer's legacy, including, in 2004, "Fannie in the Kitchen," by Deborah Hopkinson. The subtitle to this illustrated children's book, released in 2004, reads: "The Whole Story From Soup to Nuts of How Fannie Farmer Invented Recipes With Precise Measurements."

And that's why Farmer still matters today -- that precision counts. "Her recipes are accurate. You can trust the amounts," Jones said. "She really widened our horizons and really brought things to people they had never tasted before."'