Today’s episode is all about who is Fannie Farmer and her contributions to food science. I’m continuing the theme of food science from a couple of episodes back. If you haven’t had a chance to listen, make sure you click back and check out my episode about William A. Mitchell. He was a powerhouse of a scientist and was the key inventor of Cool Whip, Tang and Pop Rocks.
If I were to ask you who is Fannie Farmer, there is a great chance you’d have no idea. Most people don’t dive that deep into food history. I feel you can’t talk about food science without referencing Fannie and her contributions to the culinary world.
The Importance of Reproducing Results
Any scientist will tell you that the key to a great experiment is being able to reproduce results. If you have a tremendous scientific finding, the scientific community will not pay attention unless you can reproduce the results. Then you have something.
We all have a family member that is an amazing cook. Growing up, my parents and grandparents cooked amazing food. However, when I grew up and moved away, I had a hard time reproducing their results. I had a recipe in hand that I executed perfectly, but the end result was light years away from what they could do.
My Attempt to Make A Family Recipe
I remember making my Grandma’s biscuit recipe a year ago. I was excited. She was from Kentucky and knew how to make a fantastic biscuit. Finally I had her recipes and I was going to be cranking out Kentucky biscuits by nightfall. My thoughts of fame and fortune came crashing down when I sent my Grandma a picture of the final product. Her response, “Those don’t look like my biscuits.”
As the air instantly burst from my rapidly deflating ego, I thought about what went wrong. I had the recipe and I followed it perfectly. However, the end result was a disappointment. This was a prime example of how my Grandma never used her recipe. Sure she had her method and recipe written down, but there were probably 5 things that she would do that she didn’t even consider writing down.
That’s how cooking and cookbooks used to be. I’ve read through many vintage cookbooks over the course of this blog. I have tried to replicate the recipes to the best of my ability. Sometimes modern equipment and techniques took precedence over what was written in the book. One thing that often left me guessing was what exact amounts and proportions of ingredients should I be adding to different recipes. There weren’t many standardized measurements in the early days. People would add whatever “felt” right and then be shocked when their neighbor couldn’t replicate their recipe.
Fannie Farmer realized this was a major problem with cooking. Without consistent and universal measurements, the average cook would never be able to reproduce a masters recipe. Think about that for a second. How many times do you watch someone cook a recipe they made themselves. I do this all the time. I’ll make a chicken soup that will vary slightly from time to time. I have never bothered to write down the recipe and assign strict measurements to the process.
The result is a soup that is amazing, but difficult to replicate. It might be almost impossible for someone else to replicate my mental recipe. I would tell them to add a little of this, and some more of that, and in the end they might be in the ballpark. However, their product wouldn’t be similar to mine.
What Fannie Said About Measurements
Fannie Farmer is known to have said, “Correct measurements are absolutely necessary to insure the best results. Good judgment, with experience, has taught some to measure by sight; but the majority need definite guides.”
This fits right in with what I’m trying to say. In my biscuit story, Grandma would measure by sight. She has said this many times. She observed her Grandma and Mom make biscuits. It became more of a sixth sense than an actual recipe. She could make her biscuit recipe with her eyes closed. But that method fails time and time again to be effectively reproduced by the masses. Great recipes work well when they are developed with measurements in mind, not when someone tries to retroactively assign measures to a recipe lodged in their mind.
If you haven’t guessed by now, Fannie Farmer’s big contribution to food science was just that, a scientific approach to cooking. She herself did not have a fancy science degree from a big institution. Life threw her some curveballs that made higher education unattainable. However, she still valued the scientific method. She knew you needed to be able to reproduce results and you could only do that with unified measurements. Cooks across the globe needed to be able to look at a recipe and be able to replicate it.
So Who Is Fannie Farmer?
Fannie Farmer was born on March 23 in Boston, MA in 1857. She was the oldest of 4 girls and was born into a family that greatly valued education. When she was 16 she suffered a paralytic stroke that required serious rehabilitation at home. She was left in her parents care. Instead of going to college she was in recovery.
She learned to cook during this time and shared her talents with boarders staying at the family home. When she was 30, Fannie enrolled in the Boston Cooking School. She loved the curriculum and fully embraced the experience. They learned about food science and nutrition. After graduating she stayed on as an assistant to the School’s director. She eventually became the principal.
The biggest contribution that Fannie Farmer made to the culinary world was the universal measuring spoons and cups. This allowed for accurate and consistent results in her cooking. She emphasized level measurement so often throughout her cookbook, that she was given the name, the mother of level measurements.
Her cookbook was wildly popular when it launched. No other book went as deep into the science of food and the methodology for cooking. Her consistent measurements made it easy to follow and reproduce her recipes. Before this cookbook, ingredients were often measured in different amounts. One example I often see in vintage cookbooks is the use of teacups.
Fannie did extensive work in diet and nutrition for those who were sick. She trained nurses and doctors in the subject and even guest lectured at Harvard Medical School. She placed tremendous value on appearance, taste and presentation of sickroom food. It was innovative for the time. I can say first hand, many cookbooks from the time period include sections for convalescent care. However, the recipes are lousy and terrible. Think porridge and mild food.
Fannie took the subject so seriously, that she thought she would be known for her contributions in that area of the culinary world instead of cooking for households.
Eventually Fannie was forced to live the last 7 years of her life in a wheelchair. She was still active designing recipes and lecturing. Her last lecture happened 10 days before her death. She died in 1915, and was 57.
So that is Fannie Farmer in a nutshell. If you read her cookbooks, you know she took science and measurement seriously. She had tremendous passion for food and it is incredible that she was able to produce such an extensive and well researched cookbook.
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