Classic Cookbook Survives a Century

One of the signs of enormous love for a book is how many times you renew it at the library. I’ve renewed this book three times. That’s nine weeks, which is the library’s limit for renewals. I checked it back in and asked if there was a hold on the book. No? Can I check it out again? Unless someone else wants it, it could be mine for another nine weeks. What book am I talking about?


by Fannie Merritt Farmer

This book is a gem – from a historical perspective and as a current resource. It’s “a facsimile of the first edition” published in 1896. The reason it has historical significance is that, for the first time in history, the author “provided carefully worked-out level measurements and easy to follow directions leaving nothing to chance.”

Measurements prior to this cookbook were by handfuls and pinches and how it “looked.” Fannie Farmer, the principal of the Boston Cooking School, created a cookbook that called for a cupful, a teaspoonful, and a tablespoonful.

In the decade prior to 1896, scientists worked diligently on the “study of foods and dietetic value, and it is a subject which rightfully should demand much consideration from all,” said Fannie Farmer. She approached her book in a scientific, no-nonsense manner. The book reads like a textbook, which is what it was.

That’s not to say this book is dull and boring because it’s not. It’s similar to an interesting encyclopedia about every food imaginable. The book starts out with the definition of food (anything which nourishes the body) and the three basic elements in “cookery” (heat, air, moisture). In the remaining 36 chapters Mrs. Farmer takes meticulous care in examining each food and then supplies numerous recipes for using that food item. There are also numerous menus for all occasions.

Last week I shared with you a recipe from this book, Eggs a la Goldenrod. That was a standard of my mother’s from the 1930s and 1940s. Many recipes in this book are like that. They will remind you of dishes served at your grandmother’s, and even great-grandmother’s table. You will find dishes like Miss Farmer’s original Boston Baked Beans and other New England specialties. Now you’ll find that most of the recipes and methods of cooking have spread throughout the country and around the world.

The recipes were fun to read  but I got a real kick out of the “Course of Instruction.” There are several different courses. The First Course  of Instruction was twelve lessons ($12 and a $3 materials charge) it was for Plain Cooking. The very first thing taught in the first lesson was The Making and Care of a Fire.

The Second Course of Instruction was for Richer Cooking. By the time a student got to the last lesson here’s what they would be making:

  • Puff Pastry
  • Oyster Patties
  • Raspberry Tarts
  • Creamed Oysters
  • Lobster Salad
  • Mayonnaise Dressing
  • Salted Almonds
  • Ice Cream or Sherbet

Yikes!! How many of those dishes can you make? I’m sure I can handle Salted Almonds. I have made mayonnaise in the blender. Do you think that counts?

How much fun that must have been to be a student in Mrs. Farmer’s school. Since that doesn’t look like a possibility for me now, I’ll keep checking this book out from the library and use it to teach myself. It’s no wonder this book has been printed and reprinted  and used for 105 years.  My hunch is that it will be around for a long time to come.

Tell us how you feel about classic cookbooks like this one. Do you own a copy of The Boston Cooking School Cookbook? Do you have a favorite recipe from the book? Share with us your experience.

This post is linked to Weekend Cooking, a weekly feature at Beth Fish Reads. Click the button below and it will take you there.

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13 Responses to Classic Cookbook Survives a Century

  1. I don’t have the original Fannie Farmer and in fact now I have one that is probably my third! but it’s the one I learned in and I have always loved it! (It probably has smashed food on a lot of the pages)

  2. Staci says:

    I could do the salted almonds and maybe the mayonnaise dressing!!! I have a feeling that you may be hunting down a copy to own 😀

  3. That was nice that they let you renew again! Maybe one of the used book places would have a nice, reasonable copy, seems like you would get great use from it. You made me smile because my grandma’s recipes all call for a “glass” of something.

  4. TheBookGirl says:

    I love old cookbooks like this one; my standby is still the original Joy of Cooking that my mom gave to me many years ago. When the new revisions came out, I looked at them, but I always liked the original better.

    Several weeks ago I had posted about my grandma’s boston cookie recipe, and this was the cookbook that someone suggested might have been the source. My grandmother had a habit of using “estimations” in her recipes: my favorite is a cookie recipe that calls for “enough flour to roll out”!

  5. Beth F says:

    I have a couple versions of this book — one old and one new. My grandmothers’ recipes call for a handful of this and a glass of that.

    I could make quite a few of the items on the list — but I’ve never tried to make my own puff pastry.

  6. My mother had a version of this cookbook when I was growing up, but I’ve never owned one. Now I’m wondering what happened to my mom’s copy.

  7. Rikki says:

    Wow, it must have been quite a task to adapt all recipes to those measurements. Very impressive! I don’t think we have those old cookbooks over here.

  8. Nan says:

    I think you oughtta just buy it Margot!! I’ve often thought of doing so myself.

  9. Oh, this sounds like a really good cookbook! I will have to keep an eye out for it at a thrift store! Have a wonderful Memorial Day!

  10. Heather says:

    My mother gave me The Joy of Cooking when I left home for University. I has gotten much use and is still a great reference.

  11. Thank goodness for Fannie Farmer! Without measurements and detailed recipes I imagine I would have thrown out an awful lot of food. (I’ve seen some of those old pre-Fannie recipes — what the heck is a handful, how big is your hand? Pinch? Stir till it looks right? Yikes… Probably we would have all just starved!) I used to have a paper-back reprint of some later edition of Fannie Farmer, but the books I learned with when I was first married were the Betty Crocker Cookbook, Joy of Cooking, and my mother’s old Household Searchlight.

  12. Bumbles says:

    Well, I can tend a fire.

  13. jehara says:

    Who knew cookbooks weren’t always so precise? This book sounds awesome! 🙂

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