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Portrait of the Artist as a Vigorous Pioneer


After I revised "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" (originally "The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook"), many people asked me if the name Fannie Farmer was fictitious. But there was a very real, red-haired Fannie, brisk, energetic, opinionated and endowed with a good appetite. She was an intelligent teacher and a passionate cook.

James Beard remembered reading that she loved restaurants and would often put a little sample of a dish she liked in her handkerchief to take home so she could try to re-create it. She also liked to go to the Boston Harbor when a French ship had docked to taste what the French chef had to offer and maybe have a talk with him.

When I had the opportunity to "redo" her book for today's cooks, I went back to that first edition to try to understand what her intentions were. I wanted to maintain her spirit and basic philosophy, even though some of our approaches to food have changed over the years.

I think that I have come to know Fannie Farmer very well. She emerges from the pages of her books full of sound advice. She always asked her students when they cooked and tasted a dish, "Could it be better?" These four little words are probably the best aid in learning to think critically and thus improve your food.

Or she would say, "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."

Fannie had a far greater influence on American home cooking than we realize. Not only did she call for careful measuring (she was known as "the mother of the level measurement"), but she was ahead of her time on the subject of nutrition. She taught how to judge the freshness of fish, how to select good poultry and game, what cuts of meat to buy and what was important to a well-balanced diet.

She deplored the poor bread of the day, believing that bread is our most important food. The bread recipes in her early books are exceptionally good (my favorite is the Water Bread). She stressed buying fresh eggs instead of the common practice of buying "cooking eggs," which were older and cheaper.

Fannie's last revision of her cookbook was published in 1914. She died the next year. After her death, the book was revised through its 11th edition in 1965 by her sister, Cora; Cora's son, Herbert; and his wife, Wilma Lord Perkins. They were not the passionate cooks Fannie was.

In 1974 I was hired to redo the 11th edition, which reflected the cooking style of the Sixties in using a lot of convenience foods. There was a chapter on canned and frozen soups; the appetizer chapter was a white swath of cream cheese dips with different flavorings.

The 12th edition was subtitled "Cooking From Scratch," and here's an example of how it differed: The 1965 guacamole recipe was avocado, onion juice, mayonnaise, tomato catsup and chili powder; the 1974 recipe was avocado, minced onion, peeled green chiles, lemon juice and salt.

By the '70s, some of the classics looked as if they might have outlived their time, but after long thought, I let a few remain. Lobster thermidor, for instance. It has a gloriously old-fashioned sauce of heavy cream, butter, mushrooms, Sherry and Parmesan cheese. For some of us, just reading that recipe is cheering.

Following are three recipes from the first edition, all of which shine just as much today as they did in 1896. Raised waffles are unlike any standard waffle--crisp, golden on the outside and delicately tender inside. Water bread, a wholesome farm bread, is easy to make and very satisfying.

I also include the lobster thermidor. Mind you, it's just for you to read, not to make. Just take my word for it: Should you ever throw caution to the winds and try it, you'd know you had had the supreme indulgence.

I wish I could sit down right now at a table with Fannie and eat her one-of-a-kind raised waffles and tell her what a wonderful dowry she has left for all of America's cooks.


1/2 cup warm water

1 package yeast

2 cups milk

1/2 cup melted butter (1 stick)

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

2 cups flour

2 eggs

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

Put water in large mixing bowl (batter will double in volume) and sprinkle in yeast. When dissolved, about 5 minutes, add milk, butter, salt, sugar and flour, and use hand mixer or electric beater to beat until smooth and blended.

Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let stand overnight at room temperature. (Batter will keep several days if refrigerated.)

Just before cooking waffles, beat in eggs and add baking soda, stirring until well mixed. Batter will be very thin. Pour 1/2 to 3/4 cup batter into very hot waffle iron. Bake waffles until golden and crisp to touch. Serve with butter and syrup of choice.

Makes about 8 waffles.

Each waffle, without butter and syrup, contains about:

260 calories; 459 mg sodium; 89 mg cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 26 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.09 gram fiber.


1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon vegetable shortening

1 tablespoon sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

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