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Fannie Farmer

Props needed: ordinary china tea cup, ordinary spoon, measuring cup, set of measuring spoons, table knife with straight back, mixing bowl, flour and/or baking powder.

Carol and I had Thanksgiving dinner at our house this year. While we were eating Thanksgiving dinner, my father told us about his great-grandmother, and what a tremendous cook she was. But when his mother asked great-grandmother for recipes, the recipes would never work out right! Carol said that's how it was with her grandmother. Carol's mom would get a recipe from her grandmother, try to make it, and it wouldn't turn out right. So Carol's mom would call her grandmother to find out what had gone wrong.

"It sounds like you used too much flour," said grandmother one time.

"I used just what you said, I used two cups of flour," said Carol's mom.

"But how big was the cup?" asked grandmother. "I use that blue china cup with the crack in it that hangs in my kitchen. Which cup did you use?"

You see, in the old days, there was no such thing as a standard cup measure, or a standard tablespoon measure:

[show standard cup measure and standard tablespoon measure]

You used whatever cup or whatever teaspoon you happened to have around:

[show ordinary tea cup and ordinary table spoon]

So if you gave your recipe to someone else, it might not work very well, because who knew how big their cup or their teaspoon might be?

Well, a over a hundred years ago, a Unitarian named Fannie Merrit Farmer solved this problem. Fannie Farmer grew up in Medford, and went to the Unitarian church there all her life. Fannie Farmer was "red-haired, brisk, energetic, and opinionated — and endowed with a very good appetite" [Marion Cunningham], and she was always interested in cooking. When she got old enough, she decided to go to the Boston School of Cooking. She turned into an excellent cook — she was such a good cook that within a few years, she became the director of the cooking school.

Not only was she a good cook, she was good at teaching others how to cook. She realized that one of the big problems facing cooks was careful measurement. If you're a really experienced cook, maybe you can get away with throwing in a dash of this and a handful of that. But when you're learning how to cook, it's much much easier if you measure everything carefully and precisely.

Fannie Farmer taught cooks to measure their ingredients carefully and precisely. Let me show you what I mean. Let's say you need a tablespoon of baking powder. This is how Carol's grandmother would measure her baking powder:

[demonstrate using any old spoon]

That might have worked for Carol's grandmother, because if things didn't look right, she could just add a little more baking powder or a little more flour, or somehow adjust the recipe while she was cooking. But for someone who is learning how to cook, or who has never cooked a particular recipe before, Fannie Farmer recommended careful and precise measurement.

If she were measuring a tablespoon of baking powder, here's what Fannie Farmer would do. She wouldn't use any old tablespoon, she'd use a standard tablespoon and she would spoon out the baking powder, and then, to make sure she got it exactly right, she told people to use a knife to carefully level the baking powder in the tablespoon:

[demonstrate this]

... and that way you get exactly the right amount every time. This technique of level measurements is now used by every good cookbook. Fannie Farmer was the Mother of Level Measurement.

Fannie Farmer believed in the application of science to cooking. In 1896, she wrote a cookbook which became the most famous cookbook in this country. It was originally called The Boston School of Cooking Cookbook, but soon became known as the Fannie Farmer cookbook [show a copy]. In her cookbook, she told cooks about her scientific methods of cooking. Accurate measurement was only a part of it, though. She was also very interested in nutrition, and her cookbook was one of the first ones to tell people how to eat a well-balanced diet. Of course, it was equally important that food taste good — in fact, the first recorded recipe for brownies was in her first cookbook.

Fannie Farmer has helped generations of cooks make sure that their food is healthful and nutritious — AND that it tasted good, too!