Prior to the 20th century, if you decided to whip up a dish using a recipe, all bets were off as to how it would turn out. That’s because back then, ingredients lists were estimates, offering no levels of accuracy, and guaranteeing inconsistent results. But more than 121 years ago, on January 7, 1896, that all changed when pioneering cookbook author, educator, and “domestic scientist” Fannie Merritt Farmer unveiled her simple, yet genius, system to insure that recipes turned out exactly right, every time.
Published over a century ago, Fannie Farmer’s cookbook, The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, single-handedly changed the way Americans prepared food. Considered the “greatest American cookbook,” it introduced the innovative concept of using standardized measuring spoons and cups, and included very specific and accurate measurements with each recipe. That way, both novices and practiced cooks would get the same results every time. As such, it was the first to use terms now considered standard in American cooking (e.g. a level cupful, teaspoonful and tablespoonful). It also relied on simple directions, showed a concern for nutrition, and left nothing to the user’s imagination – from instructions for building a fire to how to bone a bird.
It’s interesting to note that this cooking revolutionary only came to discover her aptitude for the culinary arts by chance, following a devastating illness. Born March 23, 1857, Fannie suffered a stroke during high school that resulted in paralysis, so she had to stop her education. After recovering, she worked as a mother’s helper, and that’s where she discovered her interest in cooking.
Fannie went on to study cooking under Mary J. Lincoln at the Boston Cooking-School, which was primarily focused on training professional cooks. She graduated in 1889, remaining as the school’s assistant director, and later becoming its director in 1894.
Eight years later, in 1902, Fannie left the Boston Cooking-School to open her own school where her students would be housewives, rather than professional cooks. It was in the hallowed halls of Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery that her recipes were kitchen tested and formulated.
Outside of the school, Fannie was a frequent lecturer on domestic topics, educated medical professionals about the importance of proper nutrition for the sick, and wrote several other cooking-related books before she died in Boston in 1915. Her school continued until 1944.
PS – Fannie Merritt Farmer is often confused with the legendary candy companies Fannie May (Chicago based) and Fanny Farmer (Rochester based, with a “y”). While the latter was named in honor of her, she was not part of the company, though it is rumored that they used some of Fannie’s recipes. They say, “The spelling of the first name was altered to avoid confusion.”
Photo Credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS; this is a rare photo of Fannie Farmer with one of her students, Martha Hayes Ludden, at Miss Farmer’s Boston Cooking School