There is a special place in my female Bostonian culinary heart for Fannie Farmer. She was born in the Boston suburb of Medford in 1857 and graduated with promise from the Boston Cooking School in 1889 at the age of 32. She remained at the school for another 13 years, first as assistant to the director, and then as principal. In 1896 her cookbook classic “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book” was published and became the bestseller of its time. Written for housewives instead of “professionals”, it aimed to provide information on basic nutrition alongside its many recipes. The book became so popular that later editions (and it’s still being published today) were simply titled the “Fannie Farmer Cookbook”.
I have a 1930’s edition, and every time I pick it up I am both fascinated and overwhelmed by the sheer volume and range of offerings. The pages are crammed with several recipes each, and directions are kept to a bare minimum. It reminds me of a critical writing class I took in college, where we were asked to take a page of writing and condense it down to 3 sentences while retaining the key elements. A real challenge for me!
Something I have come to appreciate the more I learned about Fannie, is her use of measurements. She is credited with being the “mother of measurement” because she was allegedly the first to use standardized measuring cups and spoons in her published recipes, and she frequently gave scientific explanations for why ingredients or a recipe should be used or done a certain way. Before Fannie came along, recipes were up to interpretation, calling for a teacup of milk or a knob of butter. You might get away with that making soup, but not when baking, where proper measurements will make or break you.
Image of Fannie Farmer with a student from Encyclopedia Britannica.
I had thought about trying to make one of Fannie’s recipes for an A&A post, but Christopher Kimball from “Cook’s Illustrated” and “America’s Test Kitchen” (also located in Boston!) has done me 100 times better, and I am glad now that I didn’t try…though his enthusiasm is inspiring! He has a book coming out called “Fannie’s Last Supper”, where he sets out to recreate one of Fannie’s classic 12-course Christmas dinner menus from the Victorian era. The website for the project says:
“The recipes required mastering many now-forgotten techniques, including regulating the heat on a coal cook stove and boiling a calf’s head without its turning to mush – all sans food processor or oven thermometer. Sourcing the unusual ingredients and implements led to some hilarious scenes, bizarre tastings, and an incredible armchair experience for any reader interested in food and the Victorian era.”
I am sold. The book alone sounds like a terrific way to spend the afternoon (reading, not re-creating), but even better…Kimball has also put together an accompanying documentary (also titled “Fannie’s Last Supper”) that follows him along as he recreates and tests the recipes, with a grand finale of serving them at a formal Victorian dinner party.
“Frying Brain Balls” from Fannie’s Last Supper website.
“Trio of Jellies for Serving” from Fannie’s Last Supper website.
If you enjoy history and food like I do, you will probably love this. The book comes out on October 5th, and the documentary will air on public TV stations nationwide in November and December. Find out when it’s on, then grab your calf’s head, brains, and jelly and party like it’s 1896.