On January 7, 1896, Fannie Farmer’s first cookbook was published. Originally entitled “The 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook,” it was 600 pages long, included 1,500 recipes and cost $2. The title was eventually changed to “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.” In her book, Farmer revolutionized home cooking by introducing the concept of using standardized measuring spoons and cups, as well as using level measurements. At a time when recipes had been passed down through generations with vague directions like “use a dash of salt” or “use a piece of butter the size of an egg,” these concrete directions were game changers in the kitchen. The book was such a hit that 360,000 copies were sold during Farmer’s lifetime, and it is still considered a must-have cookbook.
Farmer was born in Boston, MA on March 23, 1857. Farmer was unable to finish high school because she suffered a paralytic stroke that left her homebound at 16. At 30, she overcame the disease and was able to walk again, although she had a limp for the rest of her life. She enrolled in the Boston Cooking School and emerged as one of the top students. After graduating in 1889, she rose from star pupil to principal of the school by 1891.
When Little, Brown & Company published “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” in 1896, they had minimal sales expectations. The publishing house only printed 3,000 copies and Farmer was asked to foot the bill. Much to their surprise, the cookbook was an overwhelming success. In the late nineteenth century, there was a growing emphasis on science. As a result, Farmer’s book fulfilled the increased desire to understand the science behind cooking and food. She explains in the book, “Scientific cooking… means the elevation of the human race.” Along with precise measurements, she included details about the chemical process that occurs when cooking food. Farmer also shared the latest scientific theories about nutrition so that her readers could cook more healthy, balanced meals. In fact, the last 100 pages of the original book were devoted to recipes to help cure the sick. The cookbook also serves as a chronicle of dishes that were popular for middle-class, white Americans in the late nineteenth century, including a dish called “Clam Frappe.” It called for 20 clams to be steamed in 1/2 cup of cold water and then frozen into a mush!
After publishing her first cookbook, Farmer left the Boston Cooking School in 1902 to start her own school, Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery. There she taught women how to cook both plain and elaborate dishes. However, perhaps as a result of enduring her own illness for many years, she was drawn to the subject of cooking and nutrition for the sick. She published her 1904 book dedicated to that topic, “Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent,” and she was invited to teach the subject to doctors and nurses at the Harvard Medical School. Even when she became wheelchair-bound during the last seven years of her life, she continued to lecture. She died in 1915 at 57 years old.
Farmer’s introduction of science to the art of cooking forever changed how we prepare food. Gone were the days of trying to figure out what your great-grandmother meant by “add a few pinches” of salt. In 1996, Marion Cunningham updated the cookbook for the first time since 1979. The 13th edition of the 1896 original now includes almost two thousand recipes, including the Farmer originals as well as modern dishes that reflect our changing tastes as Americans.