One of My Heroes: Cooking Superstar Fannie Farmer

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By Janann Giles | May 2, 2012

Yes, 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.” 

How 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.

Although 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.

As 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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