Several years ago, Anamaria at Books Together tipped me off to this charming picture book about Fannie Farmer by Deborah Hopkinson and Nancy Carpenter. Happy to say I’m finally getting around to featuring it here at Alphabet Soup and I even rewarded myself by making Fannie’s Famous Griddle Cakes using the recipe provided in the book. 🙂
These days, most of us don’t think twice about reaching for our measuring cups, spoons, or kitchen scales when we’re ready to cook or bake. Especially with baking, when precise measurements can mean the difference between a cake that rises nicely or sinks like a stone, it’s always about starting out with a good, reliable recipe.
Boston native Fannie Farmer is often credited with inventing the modern recipe. She was one of the first to write down exact instructions for measuring and cooking. But what inspired her to do that, and to eventually publish a cookbook that’s been popular for over 100 years?
Fannie in the Kitchen (Atheneum, 2001) is a deliciously embellished account of Fannie’s days as a mother’s helper for the Shaw family, served up in seven mouthwatering courses from Soup to Nuts. Young Marcia Shaw can’t imagine why in the world they’d need someone like Fannie in the first place. After all, she considered herself to be a good helper — she could make long perfect candles, scrub clothes, polish oil lamps and even bake burnt biscuits. But with a new baby coming, Mama needs someone to cook.
Though Marcia hopes Fannie can’t cook after all, the newcomer turns out tender flaky biscuits and absolutely scrumptious eggs. Rather resentful at first, Marcia gradually changes her tune when Fannie asks her to help make biscuits, then griddle cakes. With Fannie’s gentle but firm instructions, Marcia is anxious to try — it looks like a lot of fun. After a little trial and error, she’s able to flip a griddle cake at precisely the right time.
With newfound confidence, Marcia tries to bake a special cake for Mama when the baby is born. It doesn’t go as planned, with eggshells in the batter and a rotten egg. Fannie patiently teaches Marcia three ways to tell if an egg is fresh. With Mama always busy tending to the baby, Marcia begins to spend more and more time with Fannie in the kitchen.
Fannie seemed like a magician who could make mashed potatoes fluffier than clouds and blueberry pies sweeter than a summer’s day.
Though Marcia thinks cooking must be magic, Fannie assures her it’s “an art and science that anyone can learn.” When Marcia says there is just too much to remember, Fannie offers to write out precise instructions for her in a large notebook. Fannie promises to explain everything so Marcia can cook exactly as she does — “how to mix a fancy cake, make a pot of soup, even measure a cup of flour.” She also includes all kinds of helpful tips — like how to choose the ripest melons in the market.
Word of this fabulous notebook soon gets out, with friends wanting to borrow recipes or ask Fannie’s advice. Marcia says maybe Fannie could teach “the whole town of Boston to cook.” So Fannie enrolls in the Boston Cooking School (eventually becoming a teacher, then principal). The story ends with Marcia baking a Golden Cake as a going-away surprise for Fannie. Using Fannie’s carefully written instructions, Marcia measures and mixes everything perfectly and the cake is a big hit.
Fannie’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896), which later became known as The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, introduced the use of standardized measuring cups and spoons, as well as the concept of level measurement. With over 1800 recipes, the comprehensive cookbook no doubt gained popularity because it ensured consistent results and provided detailed explanations of the chemical processes involved in cooking. Besides recipes, Fannie included essays about housekeeping, cleaning, canning, drying fruits and vegetables, etiquette and nutritional information.
Nancy Carpenter’s delightful illustrations add precisely the right amounts of humor and history to Hopkinson’s lively and engaging narrative. The incorporation of vintage etchings and engravings in her pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations handily evokes the 19th century, providing a glimpse of clothing, furnishings and all-important kitchen utensils and equipment. Love the old-fashioned whisks, copper pots, mason jars, cast iron stove, frying pan, bags of corn meal, flour, and array of pies, cakes, and jellies.
Carpenter snuffs out the stuffiness of Victorian society with her humorous touches, spotlighting Marcia’s impish, precocious personality. Whether balancing atop three chairs and a table while making candles, sending oil lamps crashing to the floor, or sending out clouds of black smoke from her biscuits, there’s no question Marcia is the one to watch as her skills blossom under Fannie’s tutelage. The picture of Mrs. Shaw licking her bowl after eating Fannie’s eggs is a delectably naughty violation of high society decorum. And I can hear kids giggling at Marcia juggling eggs or when her perfectly flipped griddle cake lands on the cat’s head.
Fannie, meanwhile, comes off as a patient, kind, competent teacher, and when it comes to Marcia’s shenanigans, the champion griddle cake flipper proves to be unflappable. It was interesting to read this tasty nugget from Fannie’s life and to see how teaching Marcia spawned the famous cookbook. In the Seventh Course (Nuts), Hopkinson mentions that Fannie either contracted polio or suffered a mild stroke when she was just 16 that left her with a limp in her left leg. Unable to continue with her formal education, Fannie became a mother’s helper. Once her cookbook was published, she became quite famous all over the country and devoted the rest of her life to teaching others about nutrition and health.
Fannie in the Kitchen is a thoroughly satisfying multi-course feast of American culinary history served up with good measures of fun, cooking tips and plucky panache. 🙂
* * *
🍳 NOW WHAT ABOUT THOSE FAMOUS GRIDDLE CAKES? 🍳
I simply could not read about Marcia and Fannie making griddle cakes without trying them myself. I must confess this was the first Fannie Farmer recipe I’ve ever made (gasp!). Though I’d heard of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, it wasn’t something my mother ever used or owned. Most often she cooked without recipes, and when she did consult them, they were from regional Hawaii cookbooks or recipes shared by family and friends. When I finally had my own kitchen, my first friends were Betty Crocker and Good Housekeeping.
I thought about Fannie when I took out my measuring cups and spoons. I’d always taken them for granted, and when I learned about leveling off ingredients in 8th grade home economics, Fannie’s name never came up. I grew up on Bisquick pancakes, but these days I favor Orangette’s Oatmeal Pancakes recipe. How would Fannie’s Griddle Cakes measure up?
Loved them! They were light and fluffy and oh-so-yummy with butter and maple syrup. The two cups of milk produced a batter of just the right consistency — the pancakes weren’t too thin or too thick. I’ll definitely make them again, for the times when I’m not in the mood for the heartier oatmeal pancakes. This is a good, basic recipe. Thanks, Fannie!
FANNIE FARMER’S FAMOUS GRIDDLE CAKES
- 2 cups flour
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1-1/2 tablespoons baking powder
- 1 egg
- 2 cups milk
- 2 tablespoons melted butter
Mix and sift dry ingredients; beat egg, add milk, and pour slowly on first mixture. Beat thoroughly and add butter. Drop by spoonfuls on a greased hot griddle; cook on one side. When puffed, full of bubbles, and cooked on the edges, turn and cook other side. Serve with butter and maple syrup.
*Instead of two spoons, I used a 1/4-cup dry measuring cup to pour the batter onto the griddle, just enough for medium-size pancakes (shhh!, don’t tell Fannie). 🙂
* * *
FANNIE IN THE KITCHEN: The Whole Story from Soup to Nuts of How Fannie Farmer Invented Recipes with Precise Measurements
written by Deborah Hopkinson
illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
published by Anne Schwartz Books/Atheneum BFYR
Picture Book for ages 4-9, 40 pp.
**Starred Review from Booklist**
* * *
This post is being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts. Put on your best bibs and come join the fun!
Copyright © 2015 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.