Born: March 23, 1857 Boston, Massachusetts
Died: January 15, 1915
American cooking expert, author, and educator
Fannie Farmer was an American authority in the art of cooking and the author of six books about food preparation. She was a determined woman who overcame her physical limitations to achieve success in her field.
Fannie Merritt Farmer was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 23, 1857. She was the eldest of four daughters of J. Franklin Farmer, a master printer, and Mary Watson Merritt Farmer. The Farmers moved to Medford, Massachusetts, when Fannie was a child. Though they were not wealthy, the Farmers strongly believed that their daughter should receive a solid education. Fannie's parents had hopes of sending her to college, but after high school graduation she suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed. Her doctor discouraged all thoughts of further schooling. Fannie was unable to get out of bed for months and remained an invalid for years. She did, however, learn to use her legs again. She was eventually able to walk, but always retained a limp.
Education and career
While at home, Farmer helped around the house but she was not able to help her family financially until she was in her mid-twenties. By that time she was well enough to take a job with the Shaw family. It was here that she showed a strong interest in cooking. By the time Fannie had reached thirty-one years of age, her physical condition had markedly improved. Her parents and the Shaw family advised her to seek schooling that would develop and refine her knowledge and abilities in cooking.
Farmer then 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 began to understand the association between eating and good health. Her inquiring mind led her into further 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 impressive, highly significant Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896), of which twenty-one editions were printed before her death. It has remained a standard work. She served as director of the school for eleven years. After her resignation in 1902, she established her own school and named it Miss Farmer's School of Cookery. It was decidedly creative and inventive, emphasizing the practice of cooking instead of theory. Its program was designed to educate housewives rather than to prepare teachers. The school also developed cooking equipment for the sick and the physically disabled. Farmer became a highly respected 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 carefully follow recipes. She pioneered the use of standard level measurement in cooking. Farmer, her school, and her cookbooks 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 cooking column, which ran for nearly ten 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 later in her life, she continued lecturing. In fact, ten days before her death in 1915, she delivered a lecture from a wheelchair. Fannie Farmer died on January 15, 1915.
For More Information
Hopkinson, Deborah. Fannie in the Kitchen. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2001.
Smallzried, Kathleen Ann. The Everlasting Pleasure: Influences on America's Kitchens, Cooks, and Cookery from 1565 to the Year 2000. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1956.
Farmer, Fannie (1857-1915)
Fannie Farmer (1857-1915)
Cookbook author, nutritionist
Early Life. Born on 23 March 1857 in Boston, Massachusetts, Fannie Farmer was the eldest of four daughters. At the age of sixteen Farmer contracted polio, which caused her left leg to become paralyzed. Her illness prevented her from pursuing her education after graduating from Medford High School. During a period of financial difficulty in the 1880s, Farmer worked as a mother’s helper in the home of a family friend, Mrs. Charles Shaw. The job changed Farmer’s life. Never having done any cooking at home, she took an interest in preparing meals and became a good cook. In 1887, encouraged by her employer, Farmer enrolled in the Boston Cooking School, which had been started in 1879 as part of the scientific-housekeeping movement. By the time Farmer graduated in 1889 at the age of thirty-two, the school had become so impressed by her talent that it hired her as assistant principal. She became principal in 1894, and in 1902 she resigned to open her own school, Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery.
Gaining a National Voice. Throughout the 1890s Farmer offered weekly cooking demonstrations for homemakers and professional cooks. Her popular lectures were regularly reprinted in the Boston Transcript and were soon syndicated in other papers. By the time she published The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book in 1896, she had already established a national reputation. The cookbook made her famous. It has since gone through eleven revised editions, sold nearly four million copies, and been translated into French, Spanish, and Japanese. Her emphasis on nutrition and diet as preventive health measures was unique at that time. Her specific directions and standardized, level measurements, such as teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups, made cooking easier for women, who had previously relied on cookbooks that used measurements such as “pinches” or “handfuls” in their recipes.
Writing and Speaking. Farmer reached many thousands of women with her cookbooks. In addition to the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book she also published books such as Chafing Dish Possibilities (1898) and What to Have for Dinner (1905). For ten years she and her sister, Cora Dexter Farmer Perkins, wrote a column for Woman’s Home Companion. Farmer believed her most important work was Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent (1904), in which she emphasized the importance of diet for good health. She gave lectures for nurses and at various New England hospitals, trained hospital dieticians, and once taught a yearlong course on cooking for invalids at the Harvard Medical School.
Later Life. Farmer continued to lecture even after losing the ability to walk. She died on 15 January 1915 at age fifty-seven, but her school continued until World War II food rationing caused it to shut down.