Farmer Grave

Fannie Farmer's tombstone at Mount Auburn Cemetery

Credit: Edgar B. Herwick III/WGBH News

Long Before Julia Child, Fannie Farmer Was Boston's Original Chef Célèbre

January 6, 2017

Spawling, oddly bucolic, home to a Rococo assembly of stone ornaments and memorials, Mount Auburn Cemetery belongs to the dead. From museum chatelaine Isabella Stuart Gardner to abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner, Mount Auburn is the final resting place for Brahmins and big wigs alike.

Almost lost in the landscape is a simple, natural rock flanked by Ivy. It's the grave of (with all apologies to Julia Child) Boston's most historically significant chef: Fannie Farmer (1857-1915). 

To learn about Farmer's contribution, I traveled to Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street, where I met up with the chef, editor, and media personality, to discuss the woman who, in his words, "turned cooking on its ear" at the turn of the 20th century.

"I think [in] Boston, good food wasn’t something people aspired to until Fannie Farmer," he said. "Food was never celebrated. It was almost [that] you were considered a bit odd if you took too much pleasure in food."

Born in Boston in 1857, Farmer suffered a stroke as a teenager that left her paralyzed for a time, and walking with a limp for the rest of her life. Unable to attend college, she instead enrolled in the Boston Cooking School at the height of the domestic science movement.

"It was really, there, less about fancy cooking and more about substituting good health and good nutrition," explained Kimball. "The world was opening up in terms of food, and science was coming into the kitchen, and a lot of attention was spent on diet as a means to a better life."

Title page of the first edition of Farmer's Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.
Caption
Photo Credit: MSU Libraries

Just two years after graduating from the school, Farmer was running it, and she undertook to transform the school’s collective knowledge into a new kind of cookbook. Shrewdly, she agreed to front the cost for the publication, provided the copyright remained hers. 

"To go to the publisher and say, 'You know what, I’ll pay you to print and distribute the book, but I hold all the rights,' you gotta be pretty sharp," said Kimball. "I think she was a very smart businesswoman."

The cookbook, published on January 7, 1896, was a smash hit. It contained more than a thousand recipes. It was comprehensive, well organized, and easy to follow. And, crucially, Farmer emphasized the standardized measuring of all ingredients – a pretty new idea at the time. Today, when she’s remembered at all, it’s usually for that.

"I don’t think that’s the big contribution," countered Kimball. "I think what she did was transform the teaching of cooking into something that was exciting and entertaining. And she turned cooking from nutrition to being something much more interesting. She made it fun."

The best selling cookbook of the era (4 million copies in Farmer’s lifetime alone), it became the cooking bible for generations of Americans.

Read a digital copy of the entire 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book

The book also led Kimball on an unlikely path to his culinary forbearer:

"This is a true story. It sounds like it's made up, but many years ago I moved into a house in Connecticut in 1983...and there was a little library, and there was one book on the shelf and it was the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. And it was an early edition, too, around 1900, I think. And that was the only book there, and so I started looking through it. It's a way of time traveling. You can go back 100 years or 200 years or to Roman times and follow a recipe. It's a pretty good way of getting a sense of what people were like and how they thought about things."

The book stuck with him, and in 2010, Kimball produced Fannie’s Last Supper, a book and accompanying TV special, where he painstakingly recreating Farmer’s recipes with the tools and ingredients she’d have had at her disposal.

"It was a very, very different kind of cooking," he said. "But we also learned a lot."

Kimball says that for today’s palette many of her recipes are too heavy, and the food is cooked for too long. Still, he says, there are some real gems.

"You had to boil calves' feet to make gelatin as a basis for making these wonderful Victorian jellies, which I think were the height of Victorian culinary achievement. They were just terrific," he remarked.

Farmer would go on to start her own cooking school, beat the drum for science, and champion healthy cooking for the sick and convalescent – a topic on which she lectured at Harvard Medical school.

She would also continue to revise her cookbook, eventually renamed the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, until her death in 1915. Reprinted and updated versions of the book are still found on bookshelves – and in kitchens – today.

"She was more than just a cook," said Kimball. "She was an entertainer, she was an intellect, she was a lecturer, she was a business woman, she was an author. She was, really, a remarkable person."

Fannie Farmer, who taught generations of Americans a new way to cook with her Boston Cooking School Cook Book, first published right here in Massachusetts 121 years ago this week. 


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