I feel about Fannie Farmer the way I do about McKim, Mead, and White. (Stay with me.) Just at the cusp of modernism, as Louis Sullivan was exploring form and function to develop a uniquely American style of architecture, MMW swept into the Columbian Exposition and brought us back to the European Beaux Arts.
And just as America was becoming a more fragrant melting pot, with immigrant communities from Southern and Eastern Europe, Fannie Farmer kept cooks on the scientific straight and narrow with measurements and white sauces.
Now I love an MMW civic palazzo, but I also wonder where American architecture might have gone if it had resisted a return to classicism. Likewise, sometimes there’s nothing like a Waldorf Salad, but I can’t live happily without anchovies and olives.
Another thing I love is my neighborhood, where people leave their unwanted books on the sidewalk, where I happily scavenged this one.
The Boston Cooking School was founded in 1879 but it’s Fannie Farmer who graduated from it in 1889 who has become a culinary brand. Its classes were meant for women who wanted to earn their way; eventually the school taught classes in sick-room cookery at Harvard Medical School and to immigrants in Boston’s North End. And although previous principals published cooking books, it was Fannie Farmer’s that became an American classic.
In her preface to the first edition, some of that serious sick-room flavor comes through. “I certainly feel that the time is not far distant when a knowledge of the principles of diet will be an essential part of one’s education. Then mankind will eat to live…”. What would she make of a cronut?
By 1937, things have loosened up a little. The authors have introduced variations on basic recipes; a Two Egg Cake becomes a Spanish Cake with the addition of cinnamon–ole! And, “to conform with modern fashions” the canapé chapter has been expanded to meet the demands of cocktail parties. Wine shows up in “many fine old recipes.” And maybe they learned a thing or two from those ladies in the North End; this edition includes recipes for Spaghetti with Napoli Sauce, Gnocchi a la Romana, and Ravioli.
But the flavor of Yankee farmhouse remains. Tapioca in all possible variations, Molasses Cookies and various chowders, cider applesauce and cranberry pudding, and a standard approach to vegetables: trim, boil, season with butter, salt, and pepper.