Michigan State University

Farmer, Fannie Merritt, 1857-1915

Fannie Farmer was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of Mary Watson Merritt and John Franklin Farmer, a printer. The eldest of four daughters, Farmer was raised in a Unitarian family that believed strongly in education for their daughters, and she was expected to attend college. However, at age sixteen, while still a student at Medford High School, Farmer suffered paralysis in her left leg, probably the result of polio. For several years she was an invalid, cared for at home. When she finally regained her ability to walk, she did so with a permanent limp. Her illness prevented her from finishing high school, or attending college; she spent years helping in her home.

The family moved back to Boston and Farmer, now thirty years old, was hired as a mother's helper by a family friend, the prominent Mrs. Charles Shaw, who encouraged her to enroll in the Boston Cooking School to train as a cooking teacher. The school, established in 1879 by the Woman's Education Association of Boston, fostered a more intellectual, scientific approach to food preparation and diet, and in turn, elevated the role of women not just as cooks, but as educated cooking teachers and authorities on proper diets for the healthy and sick. As a post-Civil War institution founded by reformers and philanthropists, the school gave women of modest means an entry into professional work at a time when more women needed employment and few had career options. With its emphasis on science and domesticity, it provided upper-class women with what would have been perceived to be a respectable way to support themselves should they suffer a reversal in fortune. Mary Johnson Lincoln, one such woman who began working following her husband's financial demise, served as president of the school from 1879 until 1885. Lincoln became a well-known cooking teacher and author (and is represented in the Feeding America collection). Farmer followed in her footsteps: after she completed the two-year program in 1889 as one of the best students, she stayed on as Assistant Principal and became Principal in 1891.

Farmer's first cookbook, The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, published in 1896 and still in print in 1996, was the successor to Lincoln's popular work, Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cook Book, published 12 years earlier. Some initially criticized the book for appropriating Mrs. Lincoln's school recipes without acknowledgement. Nevertheless, the book stood on its own as thoroughly modern: the directions were concise and simple, the scope was comprehensive, and most notably, it mixed food science so thoroughly into a collection of useful, appealing recipes as to form a new kind of cookbook authority. The scientific explanations of cooking processes, the insistence on level measurements (she is called "the mother of level measurements"), the discussion of food composition, caloric calculations and the body's need for nutrients, formed a systematic view of cooking that influenced cooking instruction for decades to come. In her Preface, Farmer sums up her aim and her eventual achievement: "It is my wish that [the cookbook] 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." One of the most popular American cookbooks of all time, selling over four million copies, The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook made its author a wealthy woman. Since the publisher, wary of the venture, insisted that Farmer pay the initial printing costs, she retained the copyright and profits.

In 1902, Farmer resigned her position to open Miss Farmer's School of Cookery. Though she placed greater emphasis on teaching housewives and society women than training women to earn a living, she eventually focused on the subject of healthy diets for the sick and diseased. She trained hospital dietitians and nurses, and gave regular lectures at the Harvard Medical School. Dr. Elliot P. Joslin (1869 - 1962), the medical pioneer in diabetes research and treatment, knew of Farmer's work, and cited her in a letter (dated just days before his death) as "the stimulus which started me in writing about diabetes." In 1904, Farmer published what she considered her most important work, and upon which she thought her reputation would rest: Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent. Dedicated to her mother and intended for mothers and trained nurses alike, the book takes its epigraph from Florence Nightingale: "A good sick cook will save the digestion half its work." The cookbook begins like a treatise, with chapters on the classification, composition, nutritive value, and digestibility of foods, including a discussion of the digestive system. It covers infant feeding (endorsing breastfeeding, and stating that many impoverished children would not survive on bottle feeding), children's diets, the use of alcohol, how to prepare a large variety of common foods, and diets for specific diseases, including a remarkable chapter on diabetes. Overall, the book reveals Farmer's touching intimacy and sympathy for the invalid's needs -something she knew firsthand. The invalid's tray should be orderly, cheerful, with small portions in dainty china. A heart-shaped bread and butter sandwich will be eaten when the slice of bread and ball of butter would not. She writes: "Men and women are certainly but children of an older growth, which fact is especially emphasized during times of sickness and suffering."

For the rest of her years, Farmer remained at her cooking school, holding weekly lectures that were well attended and widely reported in the press, and lecturing to women's clubs throughout the country. Always testing and inventing new recipes, she would attend top restaurants in Boston and New York City to learn new dishes. If her talent to analyze a flavor failed to identify a certain taste, and the chef refused to reveal his secret, she would reportedly take a sample back to the cooking school laboratory to analyze further. She wrote many cookbooks and pamphlets, and in the last ten years of her life, wrote and edited a cookery page for Woman's Home Companion with the help of her sister, Cora Dexter (Farmer) Perkins. In her last years she suffered two strokes, and needed to use a wheelchair, but she continued to lecture up until ten days before her death. She died in Boston and her ashes were buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in nearby Cambridge. Her school continued, led by Alice Bradley, until its closing in 1944.

Sources

  • Farmer, Fannie Merritt, The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. Boston: Little, Brown, 1896.
  • Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1904.
  • Original 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook with a New Introduction by Janice Bluestein Longone. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1997.
  • Levenstein, Harvey, American National Biography. Vol. 7. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford, 1999.
  • Longone, Janice B. and Daniel T., American Cookbooks and Wine Books 1797-1950. Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1984.
  • The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. Vol. 22, 206-07. New York: James T. White & Co., 1932.
  • Schlesinger, Elizabeth Bancroft, Notable American Women 1607 - 1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Eds. Edward James, Janet James, Paul Boyer. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
  • Shapiro, Laura, Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.
  • The following is a list of Fannie Farmer's most well known cookbooks and date of first publication:
  • The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. Boston: Little, Brown, 1896. (Farmer revised the cookbook in 1906, and others have since revised it; now entitled The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, its 13th and latest edition by Marion Cunningham was published by Knopf in 1990 and reissued in 1996 in honor of the cookbook's 100th anniversary. Also in print are several reprints of the 1896 original.)
  • Chafing Dish Possibilities Boston: Little, Brown, 1898.
  • Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent. Boston: Little, Brown, 1904.
  • A Book of Good Dinners for My Friend, or What to Have for Dinner. New York: Dodge, 1905.
  • Catering for Special Occasions, with Menus and Recipes. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1911.
  • A New Book of Cookery. Boston: Little, Brown, 1912.