Veggin’ Cookbook Chronicles: A Glance to the Past – Boston Cooking School Part I of II

September 12, 2010 By: Megabeth Category: Cookbook Chronicle Challenge, Misc. Print This Post Print This Post

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The Boston Cooking School Cookbook was originally published in 1896 and when it hit the shelves it brought to use something not really known in recipes at the time – common measurements (i.e., cups, teaspoons, etc). Prior to to this, measurements were a bit cryptic asking for a coffee cup, a spoonful, a saucer of an ingredient. (Think about how many different sizes of those objects you have in your kitchen and you can see the problem.)

Fannie Merritt Farmer became principal of the Boston Cooking school years after she herself was a student and she worked to teach not only cooking techniques but also nutrition and domestic sciene. In the preface to the first edition she stated, “At the earnest solicitation of educators, pupils, and friends, I have been urged to prepare this book, and I trust it may be a help to many who need its aid.” Little did she know at that writing that the Fannie Farmer cookbook empire would be born.

The basic foundations for many kitchens to this day are rooted in Ms. Farmer’s writings and techniques. As techniques changed, new equipment was invented and discoveries were made, new editions of her cookbooks were revised and published. Between 1896 to my 1936 edition, the cookbook was revised four times and reprinted every single year in between.

As new versions came out, these cookbooks become a snapshot of life at the time the book was written. It is because of this that rather than spending time going through this 838 page cookbook that is packed full of tips, menus, conversions, advice, guidance and diagrams on cooking techniques I will instead focus more on the sociological and anthropological aspects of this cookbook. (Don’t worry, though, I’ll be profiling one of the recipes in the book in another post soon.)

The preface my particular edition was written on July 18, 1936 by Wilma Lord Perkins. Ms. Perkins, Ms. Farmer’s niece, took on all the revisions and updates after Ms. Farmer’s death in 1915.  The 1936 edition mentions that the changes to this new revision were meant to “conform with modern fashions with food.” In fact, Ms. Perkins goes on to explain that “cocktail parties are so much the vogue that the chapter on canapes and hors d’oeuvres has been considerably lengthened.” Furthermore, “wine as an ingredient is so much more widely used then heretofore that room was made for many fine old recipes requiring its use.” Written a few years after prohibition ended in the United States, housewives were now able to host parties with alcohol and feature it on their menu. Ms. Perkins was ready to oblige with appropriate recipes.

On the title page of my cookbook,  I was greeted by a handwritten note which helps personalize this journey through this 70+ year old book. On a December day in 1936, someone wrote in a scrawling hand “To my Janice – With every confidence. Love.”  It was dated December 9, 1936. I can only imagine that this was either written by a husband to his new wife to build confidence in her new role as keeper of the house. Or, perhaps, Janice was a terrible cook and this cookbook was presented as a last ditch effort to bring some edible fare into the household. (Meanwhile, I’d also like to also imagine Janice and her “Love” hosting some swinging jitterbug to-dos at their house featuring a Fannie Farmer recipe spread of “cocktail puffs”, “toasted mushroom sandwiches”, “cheese wafers” (that the cookbook notes are “especially good with Sherry”) and a giant bowl of punch made with champagne, brandy and rum.)

I’m not sure how Janice originally received this gift. I can assume, however,  that she took this book and ran with it because in the back of the book we now get to see Janice’s handwriting documenting a recipe. Mrs. Lane apparently came to Janice’s rescue with a cake filling that she must have fallen in love with at a recent get-together and insisted on the recipe. But, in a semi-homemade riff, Mrs. Lane recommends using a Swans Down White Cake (which apparently is “very good”.) Mrs. Lane also asks for some sherry wine, candied pineapple, dates and figs to be spread between the cake layers.

With a flip of the page, if Janice finds she has some extra dates, then she’s ready because she’s also written in a recipe for some date pudding. And, she was also inspired by someone’s sauce for chicken as she’s written that recipe, too.  No, wait, the sauce is specifically for (3) chickens…I like how that specific note is added in there as an afterthought.

Who knows if Janice was inspired by the cookbook to venture to other new things and how these particular recipes ended up in the end pages. But, Janice need not worry about running out of ideas when that chicken recipe became boring because her cookbook was packed with recipes and information about tools, products, and techniques. So, while she had Mrs. Lane’s help in some extra recipes. She had a lot of information at her fingertips.

But, if Janice kept reading beyond the 848 pages of this cookbook, she’d be able to find some solutions to her every day problems in the advertising section in the back of the book. For example, Fleischmann’s yeast reminds Janice that she should depend on her baker and “let him help you with your menu problems.”

But let’s just hope that Janice did not fall victim to having hands that shout “Dishpan Slaves!”. Indeed, hands that shout that are so unnecessary these days and are just as horrid as dirty nails. If Janice used Lux, she had an inexpensive way of keeping hands lovely. There’s just no excuse for those dishpan hands and I can see why women would gossip about that!

Dishpan or not, Janice’s hands were full managing a house and serving up enticing food for the family all in the midst of the depression. Fannie Farmer’s cookbook comes to her rescue helping her stretch the most out of her dollar through creative “made-over dishes” using leftovers and practically every meat and organ possible. That said, there are still many vegetarian recipes scattered through the book that I will feature in a future post here on Veggin’.  In the meantime, I leave you with Mrs. Farmer’s words, “Cooking may be as much a means of self-expression as any of the arts. No cookbook, nor any book dealing with an art, can provide the spark of genius, but it can – and should – serve as a source of inspiration and information.”

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