Fannie Merritt Farmer (23 March 1857 – 16 January 1915) was an American culinary expert whose Boston Cooking-School Cook Book became a widely used culinary text.
Fannie Farmer was born in Boston, Massachusetts. She could not finish high school for health reasons and took up cooking, which became the key to her great success. Farmer attended the Boston Cooking School and was such a good student that she joined the faculty. By 1891 she was the principal. In 1896 she published the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, which was an immediate success, has never been out of print and ensured its author’s financial independence. Americans measure ingredients in teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups due in large part to the success of this one book that sought to rationalize the approach to cooking.
The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, one of the best-selling cookbooks in American history, began life in 1896 as the Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. Its author, Boston-born Fannie Farmer, was writing for the growing number of American women who aspired to the new ideal of middle-class family life: home ownership, with a wage-earning male head of household and a full-time mother and housewife to oversee the home and family. The book provided these women with the kind of practical, detailed knowledge earlier generations could expect to get from their mothers, aunts, or older sisters. It treated meal preparation and other domestic chores as serious, even scientific, pursuits. Fannie Farmer’s work laid the foundation for home economics courses that soon became standard high school fare.
Her approach grew out of her personal experience. She was a 16-year-old student at Medford High School when her right leg became paralyzed as the result of a stroke. Her father’s printing business was failing so instead of going on to college, she went to work as a mother’s helper for a family friend. She had never done much cooking at home; with her employer’s encouragement, she soon became an excellent cook. In 1887, at age 28, she entered the Boston Cooking School, established to train women to be professional cooks. She did so well that at the end of the two-year course, she was invited to stay on as assistant principal. By 1894, Fannie Farmer was the head of the school.
Farmer’s success eased the financial pressures on her family, and it gave her the opportunity to put her ideas about cooking and nutrition into a book — the Boston Cooking-School Cookbook — published in 1896. Aimed at ordinary housewives, rather than at professional cooks, the book introduced American women to the science of nutrition.
Rather than merely a collection of general recipes, Farmer’s book asked women to think seriously about what their families should eat and how best to achieve a balanced diet. For example, the book opened with a discussion of the chemical composition of the human body and the nutritional value of different food groups. It went on to discuss diet in terms more akin to those found in a chemistry textbook than in other cookbooks. The book was innovative in another sense. It provided detailed cooking instructions and advocated standard measures such as the “level” teaspoon, tablespoon, and cup that American cooks have been using ever since.
Since the Boston Cooking-School Cookbook was more or less self-published, Farmer retained the copyright. The book made her wealthy and after eight years at the Boston Cooking School, Farmer went out on her own, opening Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery in 1902. Her weekly demonstrations and lectures on cooking and diet were popular among both homemakers and professionals, and were regularly reported in the Boston Transcript. She had a special interest in diet for the sick and gave short courses to nurses and dietitians at area hospitals; she even lectured at Harvard Medical School.
Fannie Farmer was equally successful when she traveled the country lecturing to women’s clubs and other groups of non-professionals. Before an audience, her shy and reserved personality gave way to vivaciousness. She suffered two strokes but continued lecturing from a wheelchair. When she died in Boston in 1915, at the relatively young age of 57, Farmer’s cookbook was still selling well. In 1997, a facsimile of the original edition was published, and the book was completely updated to celebrate the 100th anniversary of this American classic. The book is readily available in many editions, as well as online formats.
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