Farmer, Fannie Merritt

views updated May 09 2018

FARMER, Fannie Merritt

Born 23 March 1857, Boston, Massachusetts; died 15 January 1915, Boston, Massachusetts

Daughter of John F. and Mary Watson Farmer

An attack of paralysis, which maimed her for life, prevented the seventeen-year-old Fannie Farmer from attending college. For a time, she worked in the family kitchen, where her interest in cooking found an outlet in the preparation of meals for boarders in the home. Her health improved, and, at twenty-eight, she enrolled in the Boston Cooking School. After her graduation in 1889, she was appointed assistant to the principal, Carrie M. Dearborn. Upon the latter's death in 1891, Farmer became director of the Boston Cooking School.

In 1902 she established her own school, Miss Farmer's School of Cookery. The school's curriculum emphasized the practice rather than the theory of cooking, and it specialized in cooking for the sick and convalescent. In addition to her work at the school, Farmer wrote a popular cookery column for the Woman's Home Companion and lectured to such diverse groups as nurses, women's clubs, and the Harvard Medical School. In 1908 Farmer suffered a stroke that completely paralyzed her legs, but she continued to fulfill her professional commitments up to the time of her death. Just 10 days before she died, Farmer delivered her final lecture.

One of Farmer's chief contributions to the art of cooking was the standardization of measurements. In an age when haphazard measurements prevailed and cookbooks listed the vaguest of rules—a "pinch," a "lump the size of an egg" or "walnut" were common terms—Farmer insisted upon exact proportions. In her books, quantities are accurately stated. While women were still considered emotional and unscientific, Farmer transformed cookery from mere guesswork into a science.

The style of Farmer's writing is lucid, concrete, and clear. She assumes nothing and takes pains to educate the reader regarding elementary cooking terminology and measurements. In Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent (1904), her recipes for invalids are accompanied by advice and recommendations regarding their care. Although Farmer considered her life's work to be the development of cooking and diets for the sick, including the diabetic, she is best known today for her immensely popular first work, The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896). This work ran into 21 editions before her death, and continues to be a standard work today. Although H. L. Mencken, in 1930, criticized the work for its "provinciality" and Yankee practicality and simplicity, most readers would agree with K. Smallzried's assessment in The Everlasting Pleasure: "It is doubtful whether any home or any food company has escaped the influence of Fannie Merritt Farmer, indirect if not direct."

Other Works:

Chafing Dish Possibilities (1898). What to Have for Dinner (1905). Catering for Special Occasions, with Menus and Recipes (1911). A New Book of Cookery (1912).


Hopkinson, D., Fannie in the Kitchen (1999). Smallzried, K. A., The Everlasting Pleasure (1956). Vare, E. A., Women Inventors & Their Discoveries (1993).

Reference works:


Other references:

American Mercury (July 1944). Time (29 May 1978).


Fannie Merritt Farmer

views updated May 18 2018

Fannie Merritt Farmer

Fannie Merritt Farmer (1857-1915) was an American authority in the art of cookery and the author of six books about food preparation.

Fannie Farmer was born in Boston, Mass., on March 23, 1857. Her parents had hopes of sending her to college. But after high school graduation she suffered a paralytic stroke, and her doctor discouraged all thoughts of further schooling.

While at home as an invalid, Fannie Farmer became interested in cooking. When her physical condition had markedly improved, her parents advised her to seek schooling which would develop and refine her knowledge and abilities in cookery. She liked the idea and enrolled in the Boston Cooking School, where her performance was outstanding. Because of the excellence of her work, upon graduation in 1889 she was invited to serve as assistant director of the school under Carrie M. Dearborn. Farmer's inquiring mind led her into studies, including a summer course at the Harvard Medical School.

After Dearborn's death in 1891, Farmer was appointed director of the school. While there she published her monumental work, Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896), of which 21 editions were printed before her death. It has remained a standard work. She served as director of the school for 11 years. After her resignation in 1902, she established her own school and named it Miss Farmer's School of Cookery. It was decidedly innovative, emphasizing the practice of cooking instead of theory. Its program was designed to educate housewives rather than to prepare teachers. The school also developed cookery for the sick and the invalid. Farmer became an undisputed authority in her field, and she was invited to deliver lectures to nurses, women's clubs, and even the Harvard Medical School.

One of Farmer's major contributions was teaching cooks to follow recipes carefully. She pioneered the use of standard level measurement in cooking. Farmer, her school, and her cook-books were extremely popular. She received favorable newspaper coverage in many American cities, and her influence was widespread. The well-attended weekly lectures at the school were tributes to the value of the work she and her assistants were doing. She also wrote a popular cookery column, which ran for nearly 10 years in the Woman's Home Companion, a national magazine.

Farmer was a woman of unusual motivation, intelligence, and courage. Though she suffered another paralytic stroke, she continued lecturing. In fact, 10 days before her death in 1915, she delivered a lecture from a wheelchair.

Further Reading

For general background on cooking and a brief discussion of Fanny Farmer see Kathleen Ann Smallzried, The Everlasting Pleasure: Influences on America's Kitchens, Cooks, and Cookery from 1565 to the Year 2000 (1956). □