Fannie Farmer, Mom and Me
Words | Faye Snider
As a child, I took my Mom’s exceptional cooking skill for granted. I was surrounded by her bounty —her full course meals for lunch and dinner, the cookie jar filled with sweet and chewy raisin molasses or chocolate drop cookies. I felt the pangs of hunger only after I left home for college. It would after her death that I began to wonder how it was that my immigrant mother, raised on traditional Jewish dishes such as cholent, a pot of root vegetables and meat bones simmered for hours on the back of the stove, thick bean soups and noodle puddings, evolved into such an adventurous cook. An ardent recipe clipper from Family Circle and Woman’s Day magazines and The Portland Press Herald, she was a whiz at scanning details and selecting choices. She cooked into her nineties and had a cabinet filled with file boxes of recipes— all categorized according to type— meats, fish, chicken, pies, cakes, cookies, and her specialty: DESSERTS.
Her enthusiasm for meal planning—the what, the how, the willingness to prepare every meal from scratch with the “best” ingredients—is her legacy to me, as indelibly etched as my DNA. To this day, I follow her model (sans dessert) of preparing a full course meal for my husband of sixty years. Mom was just ten when she immigrated from Lithuania and small enough to begin school as a first grader. That opportunity set the stage for gradual transformation as an “Americana." She dressed, behaved and openly spoke about her preference for the modern: straight lines and soft fabrics in furniture, contemporary dress and shoes, liberal in political and intellectual thinking and most of all, au courant in the latest recipe and food trends.
Mom was an effortless cook—head down, eyes focused, she was as speedy and certain as Julia Child in how shecombined the newest American style fare with Yankee and Jewish dishes. I regret, that in all our discussions about recipes, I never put two-and-two together, never asked about how she learned to cook so effortlessly, especially since in my own profession as a family therapist, I am a curious student of behavior. Up to three weeks before her death at ninety-three, she cooked her special Italian red sauce while sitting at the kitchen table, a companion-helper by her side. The companion measured; Mom stirred and tasted, making certain the blend was perfect. She trusted her senses.
I am heir to Mom’s first cookbook, The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, published in 1925, by Little, Brown and Company. The tan binding has pulled away; the pages are taped and frayed with use and splattered with grease throughout seven decades of cooking. Marion Cunningham, in the 100th anniversary edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, writes that Fannie constantly prodded students to culinary excellence with the question, “Could it be better?” Fannie believed that to cook well, a woman needed to learn to plan menus and gain mastery over the details of preparation that guaranteed outcome. “I have no patience with cooks who just boil their vegetables, instead of putting heart and soul into cooking so it becomes enjoyable instead of drudgery,” she wrote.
Sifting through dated pictures carefully positioned in a black-paged album, I came across Mom’s 1924 graduation picture from the Fannie Farmer Cooking School. She is the only dark-eyed, petite brunette among several tall, fair women standing at their cooking stations. What prompted her to enroll as a single woman? Mom married “late,” at age twenty-five. What better way to continue her acculturation and to fit in than to cook as an American? More importantly, learning to cook increased Mom’s marriage potential. She did eventually marry my Yankee father and his unabashed ardor for her cooking infused the spice of their long marital bond.
When a visiting aunt, cousins, or last minute friend joined our family of five for supper, she gladly set an extra place at the kitchen table or moved to the dining room. There was always plenty—recipes made from scratch, entrees prepared with fresh meat, fish and vegetables, her welcoming and healthy fare, followed by delectable desserts—a just-from-the-oven, aromatic fruit pie, a whipped chiffon chocolate pie, moist cakes and buttery cookies, tapioca, rice and bread puddings, the range of which I credit to Fannie Merritt Farmer, the founder of the Fannie Farmer Cooking School.
Born a half-century apart—Fannie Farmer in 1857 and Mom in 1900 — the two women never met, but they just as well might have. Fannie’s passion for the study of cooking was born in the aftermath of a sudden paralysis possibly due to polio. Stricken at age sixteen, she was bedridden for months and an invalid for years. She did regain her ability to walk, but was left with a significant limp. Unable to attend college, she focused her considerable drive and will on the daily practice of cooking in her mother’s kitchen for her extended family which grew to thirteen.
At thirty, Fannie left home to become a mother’s helper for Marcia Shaw, the daughter of a prominent member of Boston society. Laura Shapiro, in Perfection Salad, tells the story of how Mrs. Shaw watched Fannie measuring out “butter the size of an egg” or “a pinch of salt” and asked what those expressions meant. At that moment, presumably, standardized level measurements were born. Mrs. Shaw was so inspired by Fannie’s knowledge and ability for cooking, she encouraged her to attend the newly founded Boston Cooking School. The timing was perfect in that it coincided with the post Civil War thrust of the domestic sciences. Remarkable for 1887, the school taught the study of diet, the science of food, and promoted the role of women as educators and experts on dietary needs for healthy and ill persons.
Fannie became a star pupil and two years after graduation in 1893, became the school’s principal. A few years later, she was chosen by a flour company to judge its recipe contest where she discovered that only five per cent of the participants had the know-how to specify exact measurements. I can only image Fannie’s reaction to this event. In the winter of 1905, Woman’s Home Companion invited Fannie to write a regular column where she articulated her passion for her new scientific cookery. “ It is impossible to raise cookery above a mere drudgery if one does not put heart and soul into the work; then, and then only, it becomes the most enjoyable of household duties,” she wrote.
In all her recipes, she listed ingredients with specific measurements. Fannie instructed that to accurately measure a tablespoon of a dry ingredient such as flour, baking powder or salt, one needed to use a knife to scrap the surface level after the spoon was filled. Over and over, in italics, when noting the use of dry or wet ingredients, she repeated, a cupful is measured level, a tablespoon is measured level, a teaspoon is measured level.
In the first edition of her cookbook, she revolutionized cooking procedures by introducing the prototype of our present day cookbooks: the now familiar numerically measured ingredients in columns, followed by written directions for cooking or baking. Undaunted by rejections from publishers who determined her cookbook would not sell, she self-published 3,000 copies of her first edition —Fannie Farmer's The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook— in 1896.
Clearly, for new cooks like my mother and women who sought competence and mastery in meal preparation, there was a need. Fannie was offered a publishing house contract in 1900 and her book was printed yearly thereafter up to 1906, then intermittently until 1923. Twenty-eight years after Fannie published her fledgling pages, the new edition of Boston Cooking School became the first cookbook to make the Publishers Weekly nonfiction bestseller list. Fannie’s intention, to offer a range of options not yet achieved in American cookery, ultimately totaled thirty-seven chapters and 806 pages.
Fannie’s book is thick, filled with a breadth of recipes. But what caught my attention most was her choice to open her book with a quotation from John Ruskin, the English author, artist, and philosopher. She articulates her admiration for his philosophy— that cookery means inventiveness, willingness and the readiness of the appliances. It also means “English thoroughness, French art and Arabian hospitality. You are to be perfectly and always ladies’ loaf givers.” A feminist philosophy it was not. The term, loaf giver, is derived from Old English. The male, responsible for feeding his dependents, was the “loaf-guardian” and his wife, the “loaf giver.”
There it was: a description of marriage that aptly describes my parents’ marriage and likely, most marriages of Fannie’s time. Mom often asserted that my father was the provider and she, the homemaker, in charge of cooking and all aspects of maintaining the household. It was Fannie’s zeal for clarity, continued learning and novelty that spurred her to leave her post as principal and launch the Fannie Farmer Cooking School. The women who responded so overwhelmingly to Fannie’s cooking became part of the most “open-bordered social class where education and correct living were expected to lead straight up.” Indeed, straight up and into marriage as proclaimed in the proverb: "the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
In Mom’s 1925 edition, Fannie covered the principles in cooking a range of dishes: “Fire, Ways of Cooking, Rules for Baking in the Gas Oven, Various Ways of Preparing Food for Cooking, How To Bone a Bird, How to Measure, How to Combine Ingredients, Ways of Preserving, Tables of Measures and Weights, Time-Table for Cooking.” Clearly, one could learn if one read with a willingness to grapple with detail. In reviewing the forty-two chapters in Fannie’s book, I recognized Mom’s penchant for variety, her excitement over newness, her certainty that by following a “good recipe” she could create her fantasy. It would seem like millions of women, Fannie became Mom's "Cookery Spirit."
During World War II, Mom canned beans, blueberries, strawberries and peaches during summer months. In the heat of day, she snipped and washed fresh picked beans, blanched, cooled and packed them, leaving no open spaces, as per Fannie’s direction, into quart-sized mason jars before partially tightening the cover. She then heated the jars to the boiling point of sterilization for three hours. After cooling, she set the covers tight. Mom stored jars of tiny Maine blueberries, plump red strawberries, golden peaches spiked with whole cloves, and long green beans on the shelves in the basement pantry for the cold Maine winters when fresh vegetables were absent from the table.
It seemed a magical space, that tiny six by eight cellar pantry, with its single wall of rough wooden shelves lined with perfectly formed fruits and beans floating in liquid. Just by looking, I could imagine the taste of strawberries, their sweet, soft red fruit on my tongue, a swirl of sour cream blending into a perfect meld. Fannie has an entire chapter on “The Canning of Fruits and Vegetables By The Open Kettle Method.” I imagine that Mom followed Fannie’s exact instructions—“Boil sugar and water ten minutes to make a thin syrup; then cook a small quantity of the fruit at a time in the syrup; by so doing, fruit may be kept in perfect shape”— for Mom’s fruits resembled a Van Gogh still life.
By the time I was old enough to eat with a fork and knife, Mom had integrated her knowledge of cooking into varied and delectable offerings. For a light supper during World War II, she served salmon wiggle, made with a thin, white sauce, noted in Fannie’s Chapter Twenty Eight: 1 T. butter, 1 T. flour, 1 C. scalded milk, 1/2 t. salt, few grains pepper. She melted the butter in a saucepan, combined the flour mixed with seasonings and stirred until it was well blended. She poured the milk while stirring with a wire whisk, to the boiling point. Mom finished by opening a can of salmon, draining the liquid, flaking it with a fork, then gently mixed the salmon into the sauce and served it on wheat bread toast points. Sometimes, she added tiny, fresh peas, an accompaniment to salmon I enjoy to this day.
In contrast, for summer picnics at Old Orchard Beach, she cooked and sliced her own fresh cooked corned beef or pickled tongue for thick rye bread sandwiches accompanied by grated coleslaw and potato salad mixed with hard boiled chunks of eggs. For dessert, there was Zarex fruit punch and a 9 x 13 fresh baked sheet of cake wafting with the smell of tiny Maine wild blues. Cooking was her daily devotion. She often remarked, “I would rather cook than clean house any day.”
As an adolescent, on “bridge night,” I often sat snuck out of my room to sit on the stairs of our colonial house. It was the ideal spot, out of sight and just around the corner from the living room, where I could listen to Mom and her friends’ gossip during their monthly gathering. When the curtain went up on Mom’s appearance with a tray of dessert—a fresh strawberry chiffon or tart lemon meringue pie, the best part was hearing the enthusiastic, high-pitched complements as Mary, Mildred and Bertha sang their chorus, “Goldie, this is delicious. Give us the recipe.”
For celebratory events, Mom often treated guests to her specialty— Boston baked beans in molasses simmered all night long in the oven. “Goldie is the best cook of all,” Dad would declare as eager synagogue congregants and guests lined up to spoon mounds of the aromatic molasses-infused beans onto their plates. Mom experimented and perfected her own version of Boston baked beans using a touch of mustard, without the three fourths pound fat salt pork in Fannie’s version.
Given Mom’s joy for collecting and trying new recipes, you would think she would have taught me to cook. But in all my growing up, she never once invited me to help her chop, cut, measure, or stir. The kitchen, with all its mystery, was her special territory. Her husband and children were consumers, the beneficiaries of her formidable creativity. It was Dad, not Mom who assigned me to the sink with the task of washing dishes after dinner. To my knowledge, it never occurred to me to ask Mom if I could help. I was the child who followed Mom’s baking schedule and interrupted my backyard fantasy adventures to sit in-wait for the bowl coated with sweet batter.
Following in Mom’s footsteps seemed daunting. I was a pre-boomer— ambitious professionally, believing I could do it all. My future husband, Marv, and I shared common intellectual and career aspirations. I believe he chose me, in part, because of Mom’s cooking. His own mother was a dutiful cook who lacked the creative “know-how” of seasonings. Marv’s taste buds came alive at Mom’s table, especially since Mom often played to her audience. His special status as my first serious boyfriend accorded him a huge range of special offerings— Mrs. Siciliano’s sautéed lamb leg in fresh tomato sauce over spaghetti, baked chicken breasts and legs with pineapple and rice, bread and celery stuffed veal brisket, always accompanied by a cooked vegetable and salad, coleslaw, or Jell-O mold. Marv relished Mom’s fruit pies—cherry, strawberry-rhubarb, blueberry, and apple. Desserts with tea were a given.
A week after college graduation, about to begin a social work graduate program at the University of Michigan and a week before my wedding, I faced the fact that I did not know how to cook.
“Mom, I’ll have to cook three meals a day. I’ll need recipes,” I said.
“We’ll go through the file; you’ll write them down. It’ll be fine.” Her voice was calm.
We sat across from one another on the chunky red leather and chrome chairs at the grey Formica table. I reached for a white three-by-five card, and wrote as fast as she spoke.
“Veal chops,” I said, “Marv loves veal chops. I want that recipe and the recipe for roasted meatballs with onions and carrots, lamb sauce for spaghetti.”
“At the Kosher butcher’s, it’s the shoulder chop. Try to find a similar cut, maybe a pound or a little more for the two of you. Select nice ones, slightly pink, little fat. Wash and pat them dry. Cool water. You’ll need egg and breadcrumbs. Lay the crumbs on a plate; beat up an egg with a little water. Dip the chops— first in the egg, then into the crumbs. You can season the crumbs accordingly with salt and pepper before dipping. Take a good sized frying pan, add a little Wesson oil, not too hot, and cook for fifteen-twenty minutes to a side depending on how thick.”
I had a million questions: what kind of crumbs, what was the brand? I did not intend to keep Kosher. Marv and I would make our first home in a one and a half room University of Michigan student-housing apartment in Ann Arbor. I would shop at an A&P halfway across the country from the familiar A&P on Forest Avenue in Portland, a block from my childhood home.
“The A&P brand is fine,” Mom assured.
I was anxious, very anxious, not about my marriage but about cooking for my husband. I’d never cooked a meal in my life. It was like signing on for a job without credentials or experience. But there was something about Mom’s attitude. She had faith that I could follow a recipe and that it would turn out just fine. That’s how it was for her and that’s how it would be for me. And she was right on that score.
“Can we get some chops? Will you show me?” I asked.
In the midst of wedding preparation— finding the right shoes, a bra that didn’t point, a hair trim, not too short, wading through my room to select and pack-up my best-loved books, my childhood autograph book, my high school scrapbook—I stood at the stove, Mom by my side, nervously standing over two chops as the veal’s sizzle filled my nostrils.
“Give it ten, fifteen minutes.”
I was impatient and wanting precision. Veal was delicate and I worried that over-cooking would ruin its texture.
“Try to turn it now,” Mom encouraged.
I slipped the wide aluminum spatula under the first chop.
“Is this right?”
She nodded as I bent in to sturdy my grip and flipped the chop.
“Oh, no!” The coating has come loose. It’s ruined.”
“It’ll be fine,” she said as she took the spatula from my hand and gathered the piece of coating that had broken off and seamlessly sculpted the rift together.
I patched the second chop on my own. When it was time to serve my future mate, I made sure that Marv’s plate held the more perfect brown and crispy-coated chop. He instantly cut into the soft meat then slowed as he chewed with relish.
“Terrific, this is really good,” he said.
Mine, though less elegant with its patchwork quilt, was tasty all the same. I developed confidence that day. Within a week of my marriage, I conjured up a weekly menu and shopping list. On Saturday mornings, I shopped, then religiously baked three items for the week: bran, blueberry, or a new muffin recipe for breakfast, Mom’s chocolate or molasses drop cookies and a cake—apple or blueberry or a frosted orange, white or chocolate cake—for dessert. I also adventured into recipes from Betty Crocker and The Joy of Cooking, the two cookbooks I received at my wedding shower. Like Mom, I became fanatic about reading women’s magazines, often hungry for a snack as I clipped and imagined the tastes and textures that infused my senses.
At one point, when I was thirteen, the entire family was overweight. But I was by far the heaviest and the one child who needed an alternative to the desserts that constantly tempted. Looking back, I’ve tried to fathom why my dedicated and smart mother did not figure out a way to provide less rich choices. Only one doctor, my pediatrician, had suggested that I needed to diet and recommended “one ice cream a week.” I was six years old. There was no follow-up and thereafter, I was labeled “overweight” with little concern or guidance as to how to manage.
Recently, as Marv and I were having dinner with a psychiatrist friend and his wife, my friend remarked how he had come to understand his own struggle with food. “Once you know hunger, it’s burrowed inside you. The instinct is to defend against it. It’s impossible to reign yourself in,” he said.
In that instant, I saw my mother at ten years old, in the steerage hull of the ship, Olympia, at the very age that I was ballooning into obesity. She lay on a hard bench, barely moving, alongside her mother and younger brother, leaving behind the home and grandfather she adored in Lithuania to make port in Boston. She suffered with acute nausea, vomiting, and an inability to eat anything but hard rye bread and an occasional sip of water during the two-week boat trip. Mom never spoke of that trip or her feelings about having left her birth home. But when the occasion arose during summers to motor or row on Little Sebago Lake, she adamantly declared, “I will never step foot on another boat for the remainder of my life.”
Could my friend be correct—that the tortured and protracted hunger of that trip made it impossible for Mom to deprive me? She offered me food with a look of regret; the signal that it was up to me to refuse or eat a small portion. Mom was so dedicated, so overcome with the urge to please and be au courant, she couldn’t slow down long enough to consider how to vary the menu for my needs. It’s true that in comparison to our diet-crazed focus in women’s magazines today, little attention was given to the effect of saturated fats or the abundance of sugar in recipes. No wonder my weight soared. The self-control, long in effort, would solidify in young adulthood once I left home and could determine choices for my own pantry.
“What shall we plan for dinner?” Mom would routinely ask at the breakfast table during every weekend visit. I dreaded the question, for it hit the core of my own ambivalence, my secret childhood wish to be offered wise food choices and perhaps, even more so, apparel beyond the unstylish tie-back Chubbette dresses, a line of clothing for "plump" girls. Only when Mom was on her own, a widow with an aging heart in need of managing her own diet did she and I eat similarly. She would fix a chicken dish with spices, two vegetables, steamed, and simply seasoned with a large salad. I appreciated her care— low salt and little fat, with focus on taste.
But habits persist. At dessert time, she would bring out the pie, single crusted, her compromise. Marv, delighted, would say, “It’s delicious. I eat to get to the dessert,” a joke they shared all our married life. He was, after all, a man, and in the role of loaf-guardian.
As her feminist, professional daughter who ran a mental health clinic with my husband, I refused dessert: it was my way of setting the record straight and showing Mom that I practiced self discipline. But deep down, I felt confused, wanting to let the struggle go, especially that fall day Mom and Marv unabashedly dug into my favorite—apple pie.
“Hmm, that’s a good one,” Mom said as she savored a forkful of the cinnamon-sweet and tart flavors. Like Fannie, Mom enjoyed her creations and said so.
Then, turning to Marv, she said, “How can she refuse?”
In the last months of her life, I softened. “Just a thin sliver, for a taste,” I said. Mom offered a neat triangle of a piece, just as I requested. Her piecrust was flakey and delicate, a trick I never mastered. The filling, with its moist sliced apples bathed in a light cinnamon-sugar wash, was ambrosial.
“Hmm,” I said, wishing the taste would linger and wanting more, but refusing to give in. In retrospect, I wish I had.
At my mother’s table, how easily I slipped into the skin of my younger, overweight self, the girl who struggled to resist but snuck guilty pleasures—my two favorites, flakey, cream filled horns and PayDay candy bars filled with peanuts and caramel from the corner sundry shop. I stuffed them in my pockets, took bites on my way home to dinner. Eating sweets of any type brought looks of disapproval from teachers and relatives, shaming admonishment from my younger sister, and thin best friend. It took a long time for me to learn to take in and freely savor small bites of pleasure.