Farmer, Fannie Merritt (1857–1915)

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Farmer, Fannie Merritt (1857–1915)

American authority on cooking. Born on March 23, 1857, in Boston, Massachusetts; died on January 15, 1915, in Boston; eldest of four daughters of John Franklin (a printer) and Mary Watson (Merritt) Farmer; attended public school in Medford, Massachusetts, until age 16; graduated from the Boston Cooking School, 1889; never married; no children.

Born on March 23, 1857, eldest daughter of John Franklin Farmer and Mary Merritt Farmer , Fannie Farmer grew up in Boston and Medford, Massachusetts, where she received her early education. Paralysis in her left leg (possibly the result of polio) when she was 16 ended her education and left her with a permanent limp. In 1880, to help with the family income, she took a job as a mother's helper in the home of a family friend. It was there that she discovered her aptitude for cooking and meal planning. Encouraged by her employer and her family, Farmer enrolled in the relatively new Boston Cooking School, which had been established in 1879 by the Woman's Education Association of Boston. After graduating in 1889, she stayed on as assistant director and in 1894 became head of the school.

Farmer gained national recognition with her Boston Cooking School Cook Book. First published in 1896, the cookbook was considered such a risky venture that Farmer had to pay for the first edition with her own funds. Boston Cooking, one of the most profitable books ever for its Boston publisher, has been revised numerous times and is still a bestseller in a modernized version, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Along with personally tested recipes, the book included menus and sections on formal entertaining, kitchen management, and etiquette. Farmer was revolutionary in her use of explicit descriptions ("to bake is to cook in an oven"), clear step-by-step directions, and standardized level measurements, which replaced the ill-defined "handful," "pinch," or "heaping teaspoon" used by other authors. With Farmer's "kitchen bible" at hand, anyone who could read could cook, and each recipe came out the same every time. Farmer went on to produce a number of other popular cookbooks including Chafing Dish Possibilities (1898), What to Have for Dinner (1905), Catering for Special Occasions, with Menus and Recipes (1911), and A New Book of Cookery (1912). For ten years, with her sister Cora Farmer , Fannie also contributed monthly to The Woman's Home Companion.

In 1902, Farmer left the Boston Cooking School to open her own Miss Farmer's School of Cookery, with the purpose of instructing housewives and nurses rather than institutional cooks, servants, and prospective domestic-science teachers. Although she was extremely shy by nature, her weekly lecture-demonstrations proved so lively and popular that reports of them were carried in the Boston Transcript and other newspapers across the country. Farmer's true interest, however, was in improving health through diet. "The time is not far distant," she wrote, "when a knowledge of the principles of diet will be an essential part of one's education. Then mankind will eat to live, will be able to do better mental and physical work, and disease will be less frequent." She drew great satisfaction from teaching nutrition for the sick to nurses, hospital dietitians, and students of the Harvard Medical School. Dr. Elliott P. Joslin, who did pioneering work on diabetes, credited Farmer with stimulating him to pursue his research on the origins of the disease. In 1904, Farmer published Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent, which she considered her most important work.

Farmer continued to lecture even after two strokes confined her to a wheelchair. She died in Boston on January 15, 1915, ten days after giving her last talk. Her legacy lived on through her sister Cora, and a niece, Wilma Lord Perkins , who co-authored a cookbook for children, The Fannie Farmer Junior Cookbook, in 1937. The book sold more than 250,000 copies over the years and was revised in 1957. It was updated in the early 1990s, to reflect contemporary preferences and attitudes about food and diet. A chain of candy stores also bears Fannie Farmer's name.


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Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts