Fannie Farmer, a woman who truly measures up

24 Mar
Fannie Farmer

Fannie Farmer

Yesterday, March 23, was Fannie Farmer’s birthday. We’ve all heard her name, and many of us rely on her cookbook, but how many of us know too much about her? For instance, did you know that she taught at Harvard Medical School? Or, that she devised the units of kitchen measurements that we all – in the U.S. anyway- use today? And, that her pineapple upside down cake is simply to die for? Pretty impressive, isn’t she? Especially for a woman who did not finish high school!

Fannie Farmer was born in Boston in 1857. Apparently in 1857 Boston, the names Agnes, Myrtle, Mary or Jane were unavailable, as were Sue and Ellen, so this poor infant was christened Fannie. Despite this horrible fate, Fannie was a promising student who attended Medford High School. Even though few women pursued higher education at the time, Fannie’s parents strongly considered sending her to college. This dream was dashed when Fannie became very sick at the age of 16. She recovered only to be paralyzed, and a relative invalid.

Not only was college out of the question, but Fannie did not even complete high school and her parents ruled out any marriage prospects. We don’t know exactly what illness struck the young and very bright Fannie, but researchers believe it may have been polio.  Quite sad to think about the limitations our foremothers bore, isn’t it?

Stuck at home with her parents, Fannie managed some mobility and eventually learned to walk, but always with a distinct limp. She began fumbling around her parents’ kitchen, cooking up meals and baking treats. Her parents converted their home into a boarding house, but it was the menu that had everybody talking – and eating.

Physically, she was limited but her mind kept on going. Her parents decided to enroll her at the Boston Cooking School, an institution for women who wished to make their living as cooks, and upper-class women and their cooks. Fannie excelled at the school, eventually becoming an assistant to the principal and then the principal.

Fannie rewrote the school’s standard cookbook “Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book: What to Do and What Not to Do in Cooking,” eventually removing the chatty style of Mrs. Lincoln and substituting it with a more formal, instructional voice. The book is now the renowned Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, and even better known as “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.”

Mrs. Lincoln, by the way, is not Abe’s wife, but the wife of David Lincoln of Norton, Mass. She was the school’s first principal. (Another interesting factoid: The Boston Cooking School became the all-womyn Simmons College.)

Mrs. Lincoln incorporated additional courses into the program including sick-room cookery and nutrition. The student body grew from rich white women and their servants to nursing students and students at Harvard Medical School. Fannie was among the first hired to teach these courses. Teaching required Fannie to become a student herself. She spent many hours researching the chemistry of food, it’s origins and nutrition.

Fannie also addressed measurements. At the time, recipes stated “a dash” of this, “a pinch” of that. A cup was measured by whatever teacup the cook had nearby. Fannie knew consistency was imperative. Not everyone had the same interpretation of a “dash.” Someone with big hands pinched more than someone with smaller hands. This needed to be corrected.

While she set the standards, Fannie hoped that if she were ever to become famous, it would be for her work for the sick. She believed the sick should be treated with utmost respect and be served food that visually appealing as well as nutritious and easy for them to eat and digest.

This may be because her own health was failing. By the time she turned 50, Fannie was using a wheelchair full time. This did not stop her from lecturing prospective doctors, though and she kept a full schedule of teaching and learning. Her cookbooks were, to use an old cliche, selling like hotcakes, and proceeds were helping to build her a beautiful 4-bedroom country home in Harvard, Mass.

Before her summer home was complete, Fannie died of what is believed to be hardening of the arteries.

While researching this post, my publicist and I have stumbled upon a consistent, and unintended, theme of this blog. Most of the women mentioned here overcame some serious obstacle on their way to success. Look at Fannie Farmer, paralyzed as a girl, yet lecturing as a woman at Harvard Medical School. She remains a best-selling author and household name  98 years after her death. And here she is, immortalized in the pages of Suffragette Kitty!

Following is Fannie Farmer’s recipe for Pineapple Upside Down cake, which my publicist made the other day when she was visiting MAD and spotted a pineapple on his counter. It was easy and delicious, or so they said. They didn’t offer me any. 😦

Fannie Farmer's pineapple Upside Down Cake.

Fannie Farmer’s pineapple Upside Down Cake.

12 tbsp. butter

1 cup light brown sugar

Pineapple rings

¼ cup pineapple juice

5 maraschino cherries, drained and


1 1⁄2 cups flour

1⁄2 cup granulated sugar

2 tsp. baking powder

1⁄2 tsp. salt

1⁄2 cup milk

1 egg

1. Preheat oven to 400°. Melt 4 tbsp. of the butter in a 9″ cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat. Add brown sugar and stir until well combined. Remove skillet from heat, add 1⁄4 cup of reserved pineapple juice, and stir well to combine. Arrange pineapple rings in a single layer in bottom of skillet and place a cherry in the center of each. Set skillet aside.

2. Put flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, and salt into a medium bowl and stir to combine. Melt remaining butter in a small pot over medium-low heat. Remove pot from heat, add milk and egg, and beat with a wooden spoon until well combined, about 1 minute. Pour milk mixture into flour mixture and beat until smooth, about 1 minute. Pour batter into skillet, covering the pineapple slices completely, and smooth out batter with a rubber spatula.

3. Bake cake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, 30–35 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Cover skillet with a large plate and carefully invert the cake onto it. Serve warm or at room temperature, if you like.



2 Responses to “Fannie Farmer, a woman who truly measures up”

  1. liz feltham March 25, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    Beautiful homage to a true culinary pioneer, I loved it! Thank you.

    • louisamayalcatt March 26, 2013 at 5:55 am #

      thank you Liz! Fannie is remarkable and, more importantly, inspirational. Welcome to Suffragette Kitty. We are thrilled to have you here, xo Louisa

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