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One of My Heroes: Cooking Superstar Fannie Farmer

5/2/2012 9:12:00 AM

Tags: Fannie Farmer, cooking, cooking school, cookbook, Janann Giles

Janann headshotYes, Fannie Farmer of the candy fame, but she was much more in the world of cooking ... a superstar before "superstar" was even a word. She was a celebrity chef who loved to cook and loved to eat. She was a woman ahead of her time.

First you need to know her history to appreciate who she was and why she should be one of your cooking heroes too.

One of four daughters, Fannie was born in 1857. Against popular thinking of the times, Fannie’s parents wanted their daughters to have as much schooling as possible. The family wasn’t wealthy in the Boston sense of the word; their wealth was knowledge. One day, while a teen, Fannie woke up to discover she couldn’t walk. As far as society was concerned, poor little Fannie’s life was over. Invalids didn’t attend college or hope to work. At best, Fannie might be allowed to bake a few cookies and sell them to help support the family.

And, of course, this is why Fannie is one of my heroes; stay at home, not Fannie Farmer. As her health improved, she jumped right into the evolving cooking melee of her time. Popular theories included:

  • Cooking was a domestic science and demanding women embrace this philosophy.
  • Cooking should be healthful, a woman should think only about the care of her family.
  • Boiled vegetables and a meat was enough variety in a meal.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Cooking was not fun. It was portrayed as serious business. Then Fannie came along and changed that. Here was a cook who enjoyed eating, who enjoyed teaching others how to cook and eat. She wrote in the Companion, “It is impossible to raise cookery above a mere drudgery if one does not put heart and soul into the work.” 

Level Measuring by Fannie FarmerHow does one cook to enjoy the food? One cooks correctly with level measurements, that is how. That is Fannie Farmer’s real claim to fame – level measurements. No butter the size of an egg, no pinch of salt. A cup means just that, one cup level, no mounded up over the top, not almost to the top. Perhaps a few modern cooking show cooks could go back and think about that philosophy. In trying to make cooking easy and fun, too many TV cooks pour liberally, declaring “it’s about ½ cup,” or toss in hands full of dry ingredients while declaring they know exact amounts being added to the bowl. It’s in the details, especially with baking, it’s in the measuring details, and Fannie knew that.

Fannie Farmer cookbook coverAlthough it’s been overshadowed recently, you can still find a Fannie Famer’s Cookbook for sale. Originally published as the  Boston Cooking School cookbook, Fannie’s popularity eventually caused the name morph. She wrote other cookbooks as well, which you might just find online or at a used book store.

Fannie immersed herself in food. If she tasted an interesting sauce and the chef refused to give her the recipe, she simply put a bit on her business card and took it home to analyze later.

You may wonder if fame was all that Fannie got from her cooking. Wonder no more. By the time she died, she had invested in utilities, railroads, and a chocolate company, and had 19 different bank accounts. She owned her childhood home and land in Harvard, Massachusetts. Her love for food brought her both fame and fortune - a great combination.

Stuffed Figs and DatesAs I read her favorite recipes, it’s clear the food is from a distant past. The crowds in the early 1900s may have loved her food, but I doubt it would make anyone’s top 10 list today. Think about eating this one: Potatoes and bananas mashed together, stuffed into banana skins, sprinkled with parmesan and broiled.

She’s still a hero to me, but I’m not convinced that stuffing figs with marshmallows and candied cherries is a great recipe. (The stuffed dates tasted better.) Who's your cooking hero? Add a comment; I would love to know. 

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5/7/2012 8:12:40 PM
Dave - your community garden is looking good. I hope you have more rain in Nebraska than we're having here in Georgia. Think of Fannie Farmer as an early feminist. The cooking schools and authoriites of her time were trying to make cooking "scientific", to raise it to the level of other sciences like chemistry. I'm with you though - As interesting as some recipes are I prefer reading the cookbooks and keeping my cooking to more basic recipes.

5/5/2012 2:29:59 PM
Janann, I really don't have a favorite cook book. I just like them all. Unfortunately, I never seem to have the time to truly enjoy the meals from the cook books. My time is spent out in the garden or yard with garden engineering or other projects. So I'm left with the basic food groups for dinner. The traditional Nebraska food is meat, potatoes, and corn. :0) I will eat most any thing but the basic food meals are the best in my humble opinion. Have a great garden cook book day. If you ever need a food taster, I'm you guy. :0)

5/4/2012 10:22:32 PM
What a wonderful experience cooking with dad. My father's contribution to my food education was declaring he was on a diet and that food snitched from someone else's plate (mine for example) didn't contain calories. He never did lose any weight using that diet plan. You can make burrito size egg rolls for me any day....

5/3/2012 11:22:45 PM
So cool. We ran across an old Fanny Farmer candy box we kept those old mind boggler puzzles in - and the puzzles still mind boggle! I also remember a Fanny Farmer cookbook a relative had. I love reading old cookbooks. My cooking hero is my dad. We did alot of cooking together when I was growing up. Made some fantastic ethnic meals. My favorite was egg rolls the size of burritos!

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