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How Fannie Farmer's precise measurements revolutionized home cooking

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Taste |

EDITOR'S NOTE: Throughout the fall season, Taste has brought you stories of notable cookbooks — and their authors — of the 20th century. A cookbook that was, in some way, influential to American home cooks of the 1900s was highlighted on the first Wednesday of each month. This is the final installment of the series.

In 1857, Fannie Merrit Farmer was born into a Boston family that highly valued education. Her parents, Mary and John Farmer raised young Fannie with the notion that she would one day attend college, but life sent her along a much different path. When Fannie was 16, she suffered a paralytic stroke that left her unable to walk and completely in her parent’s care. It would be nearly 10 years before Fannie was well enough to take on employment, let alone continue her education.

During her 20s, Fannie took up cooking and showed much promise. Although walking with a limp that would remain with her, Fannie was well enough to enroll in the Boston Cooking School at age 31. She excelled as a student and, upon her graduation in 1889, Fannie was offered the assistant director position. She was appointed director just two years later. This was at the height of the domestic science movement and Fannie, curious about the correlation between good food and good health, enrolled in a class at Harvard Medical School to continue her education.

The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book

Fannie Farmer believed that food is best prepared with precise measurement of ingredients which is apparent in the way recipes in the first edition (1896) of the "Boston Cooking-School Cook Book" are organized. This was a time when recipes had been passed down through generations and, if written down at all, used terms like “teacup full”, “dash”, or “a walnut-sized piece of butter”. The use of standardized measuring spoons and cups was unheard of, but Fannie was a strong advocate of the methods as well as using level measurements. While we are used to teaspoons and tablespoons today, in 1896 precise measuring had a large impact on the way we prepared meals.

The first edition of her cookbook included over 1,500 recipes from simple to complex, along with menus for breakfasts, luncheons, and elaborate dinners. Essays on housekeeping and canning were also included. The first run was limited to 3,000 copies, for which Fannie paid because the publisher did not predict decent sales.

The cookbook filled the desire at the time to learn more about the science of cooking. As a result, sales far exceeded expectations and the cookbook later became known as the "Fannie Farmer Cookbook." Because of Fannie’s own life experiences, she devoted space in the book for recipes to help cure the ill that included various types of water, broth, gruel, and mush.

The ever-popular cookbook was even included on lists of books to gift brides at bridal showers in the 1920s, right alongside the Bible. Fannie Farmer’s cookbook saw 11 editions before being updated in the 1970s by Marion Cunningham, a self-described home cook. The book reached its 100th anniversary with a new edition in 1996 — also by Cunningham — and remains in print today with over 2,000 recipes included.

More of Miss Farmer’s Pursuits

In 1902, Fannie opened her own cookery school in Boston which was aptly named Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery. She gave demonstrations on a weekly basis — in the morning for homemakers and in the evening for professional cooks. On the heels of her cookbook’s popularity, Fannie was being invited to speak at local women’s groups and give lectures throughout Boston.

She published a total of 8 cookbooks. After her 1904 "Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent," Fannie was invited to teach the topic to doctors and nurses at the Harvard Medical School. She continued to lecture through the end of her life, even though confined to a wheelchair. Her last lecture was just 10 days before her death in 1915 at the age of 57.

Each time you open a cookbook and begin preparing ingredients according to cups and tablespoons, remember that Fannie Merritt Farmer gave home cooks everywhere this gift. Because of her, each time you prepare your favorite recipe, it will turn out the exact same way no matter how experienced — or little experienced — you are in the kitchen.

Niki Davis can be reached at You can find more recipes and food history on her blog Rooted In Foods at



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