Why You Should Listen to Fannie Farmer and Learn How to Be a Domestic Scientist
An Iconic book in the world of food and homemaking is The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook by Fannie Merritt Farmer (later, often titled The Fannie Farmer Cookbook). Originally published in 1896 with only 3,000 First Editions printed, this book quickly became the best-selling cookbook of its era. It is still in print today. And for good reason.
Fannie Farmer was a visionary who was ahead of her time. She sought to transform ‘cookery’ from something associated with “servants” to “domestic science” and the art of homemaking, a gift that women could give to others in the world. Fannie suffered a stroke at age 16 that resulted in her dropping out of high school. She quickly took to cooking as her mother’s assistant and her home, which had become a boarding house, was renowned for her food and the quality of her meals.
Her love of cooking grew and blossomed into a career in, what was then coined “domestic science.” Fannie attended a cooking school and graduated as a star pupil, later becoming the principal of the school and writing The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook.
Her cookbook was revolutionary in that it required precise measurements of its ingredients, something we take for granted today since that is all we have ever known. But imagine trying to follow a recipe that is a list of ingredients, a general recommendation of what to do with them, and a quote that says, “Your results will vary.” My goodness! I can imagine the mishaps (think I Love Lucy and the Pioneer episode where she tries to make bread) and the disappointed husbands who had to choke down salty biscuits (because he better not say anything bad).
Fannie took something that was once seen as ‘low class’ and legitimized it, transforming cooking and creating/following recipes into an art form and a science. She made it accessible to women and saw it as an area where women could demonstrate strength and skill. Fannie also empowered women by personally teaching them what she knew and opening her own school with the idea that cooking should be accessible to all women, not just professional chefs.
To me, there is something beautiful about the desire to share what you know. Instead of claiming righteous ownership and taking valuable information and knowledge to the grave (I picture Gollum and the sacred ring, except it’s a wild-eyes woman clutching her family’s recipes), shouldn’t we be sharing with one another? Shouldn’t we be collectively bettering one another? And, I propose, that we are losing our ability and desire to feed others (figuratively and literally) and master the often-overcomplicated art of cooking.
In November, I met a girl named Chelsey who was working at Lululemon (yes, I was overpaying for yoga pants, if you must know). As is often said of me, I have never known a stranger, and we started discussing Thanksgiving plans. As soon as she told me that she was making Julia Child’s ‘Beef Bourguignon,’ I knew that she had to enjoy cooking because no one would put themselves through that recipe if they did not. It could ruin you forever and be the last thing you ever cooked (cue horror music).
Chelsey and I stayed in touch and have decided that instead of a Book Club (from my experience, a place to drink wine and gossip, having bought the book but never opening it), we are going to get a group of women together and cook, sharing recipes and ideas, failures and successes. We all have different skill levels and dietary requirements, just like the people for whom we so often cook (whether we cook well or poorly). I suggest that we are simply returning to a well-established female custom where we will nurture one another for our own benefit, to the benefit of those around us, and to the greater good of women (cheesy, I know, but I stand by it).
As quoted in The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook’s First Edition (and later editions) by John Ruskin, a social thinker and philanthropist, 1819-1900):
Cookery means the knowledge of Medea and of Circe and of Helen and of the Queen of Sheba. It means the knowledge of all herbs and fruits and balms and spices, and all that is healing and sweet in the fields and groves and savory in meats. It means carefulness and inventiveness and willingness and readiness of appliances. It means the economy of your grandmothers and the science of a modern chemist; it means much testing and no wasting; it means English thoroughness and French art and Arabian hospitality; and, in fine, it means that you are to be perfectly and always, ladies – loaf givers.
It’s time we view food and cooking with the respect it so deserves. It is a skill that we can attain (yes, you can). It is a gift that we can give to others. And there are resources to help us study, learn, and grow. Pick up The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, steeped in a rich history from the mind of a woman who wanted to invest in you. Or pick up any cookbook. Talk to a senior in the family who can teach you her “tried and true” methods. Make really great biscuits.
Cooking does not have to be complex and intimidating. You are capable of mastering ‘domestic science.’ And let’s do it collectively. I encourage you to get a group of women together and try out a recipe; laugh, drink wine (if you must, and you probably must), and stumble through it. And if your husband asks, you can always tell him you were at Book Club.
Sources: Fannie Merritt Farmer courtesy of http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=1764
Fannie Farmer (left) with Martha Hayes Ludden, one of her students at the Boston Cooking School, courtesy of http://www.britannica.com/biography/Fannie-Merritt-Farmer.
Cooking School, Sophia Loren Cooking, and Four Housewives courtesy of Pinterest.