The Gilded Age Woman Who Put the Original “Joy” in American Cooking

Fannie Farmer with a student. Original source unknown.

In the days where many average home cooks rely heavily on cook book recipes and Youtube tutorials, one shudders to think there existed a time without them. Before the amazing preponderance of TV chefs, Buzzfeed’s Tasty, and the like, people in America cooked without standardized measurements and without recipes until the last few decades of the 19th century. One particular woman, not letting her health issues keep her from sharing her culinary skills, changed a great deal for American cooking and even for the medical field.

Boston–Fannie Farmer’s hometown–during the 1850s. The West End is pictured here. Source: Wikipedia.

Cooking has never been–and never will be–an exact science; this is perhaps why people often ask about a great dish: “What’s the secret?” Much to the chagrin of the one enjoying the dish, he or she might find the genius behind the tasty creation doesn’t provide a recipe, but rather some vague measurements and says this or that should be “to taste.” This was also the reality of the days before dry cups and milliliters (at least where cooking is concerned). During the Victorian Era, “domestic science” gained popularity alongside efforts to quantify everything else during that period of technological and scientific advancement–including that very inexact science of great cooking.

The Boston Cooking School students visit a factory kitchen–demonstrating the role industrial progress played in cooking education at the turn of the 20th century. Source: Wikipedia’s collection of the School’s magazine.

And so, the recipe was born. Home cooks, who primarily relied upon their upbringing for any grasp on preparing food, could now find guidance in books or newspapers (if they could read, of course–a rarity among women and many men at that time). Recipes provided identifiable lists of ingredients and detailed steps in the cooking process. “Measurements” were still unclear because a teaspoon or cup ranged a great deal in size at that time (and still does).

An 18th-century Sparrow recipe that used measurements like “a piece of butter” and “a little Verjuice.” Source: Wikipedia.

Fannie Merritt Farmer changed that, and was one of the first American cooks to have a great effect on the culinary world. She changed this ambiguity about measurements with a simple concept: leveling. A level measure (easily done by scraping a filled teaspoon or cup with the back of a knife) could turn a failed recipe into a success. Other adjective qualifiers like heaping, rounded, sifted, or packed could be used, as well, to get just the right amount of ingredient to make a dish perfectly predictable every time.

The first true fudge brownie recipe ever published–thanks to Fannie Farmer’s cook book. Notice the clear set of ingredients with measurements at top and detailed analysis of what could go wrong in the recipe. Source: King Arthur Flour’s blog.

The thing about leveling that makes it stand out next to these other qualifying measurements is that a level dry measure equals the same amount as a liquid measured in the same vessel–a significant distinction since improper measuring could lead to an imbalance in wet to dry ingredients. This could make things too dry or cause them to fall apart; such mistakes could be costly and ruin entire meals.

The reference of choice for many housewives and those who made housekeeping (including cooking) a profession, prior to Farmer’s cook book. Source: Wikipedia.

Fannie Farmer’s genius did not go unrecognized by the cooking school she attended, or by her employer who footed the bill for her education. Fannie went on to become principal of the famous Boston Cooking School and created a Boston Cooking School Cook Book (often called the Fannie Farmer Cook Book) that introduced this idea of leveling. Her publishers did not believe a cook book would sell well, and so had Farmer pay them to have 3000 copies published. Prior to publication, she bought the copyright–a smart move, since her book went on to sell millions of copies.

The famed Boston Cooking School Cook Book. Source: King Arthur Flour’s blog.

Fannie Merritt Farmer got what was considered a “late start” in life back in the 1800s. At age 16, she suffered a paralytic stroke (possibly from the as yet undiscovered Polio) which left her unable to walk for many years and thus brought an end to her high school education–something rare for women, but valued in her family. While confined to her home, she took up cooking, and made the boarding house her parents’ ran famous for its great meals.

Fannie Merritt Farmer in later life. Source: America Comes Alive

She slowly regained the ability to walk, and took a job with a local Boston family in her mid-twenties. At 30, she enrolled in the Boston Cooking School with the encouragement and financial backing of her employer. She stayed on after graduating as assistant to the director and took over as head of the school a few years later. There she stayed for eleven years, after which she started her own cooking school.

The Boston Cooking School in 1908. Source: Wkipedia.

The purpose of her new school was not to create professionals or more cooking teachers, but rather to teach the everyday housewife or society woman (often never taught to cook for there was no perceived need when they employed cooks) how to create delicious and nutritious meals. But Farmer’s ambition hardly stopped there. Perhaps because she once was an “invalid,” she became interested in diet and nutrition for the ill.

The White House kitchen, c. 1890–an example of the type of kitchen Fannie Farmer would have used. The stove would have been wood-burning at this time, making cooking quite a challenge. Source: Wikipedia.

Harvard Medical School asked her to come lecture to doctors and nurses on this topic. Knowing the importance of food to anyone, including those convalescing, Farmer ultimately valued taste and appearance over nutrition, which encouraged patients to eat even a little something and improve their mental health. This could improve patients’ health more so than purely “nutritionally-devised” meals, in many cases.

Infant ward in Harvard Medical School’s hospital, c. 1916. Source: Wikipedia.

Farmer continued to work up until her death in 1915. Her cook book became the cornerstone of the American kitchen up until–and even after–the publication of The Joy of Cooking in 1931. Her contributions to convalescent nutrition are less widely known, but made great strides in the medical field’s approach to patient diet and quality of life. Perhaps she can be thanked for the most edible hospital food–Jello? Certainly that would not have been “approved” food for regaining strength before Fannie Farmer. She taught America how to enjoy cooking, and enjoy life through food.


Sources: Fannie Farmer — Wikipedia, Fannie Farmer — Encyclopedia of World Biography, Fannie Merritt Farmer — Britannica


America’s Test Kitchen’s Christopher Kimball wrote a book on Fannie Farmer’s cook book and also decided to re-create a full meal from it. The result? An awesome documentary (and dinner party) developed by ATK and I believe still available to watch on Netflix. Watch a short trailer here.

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