I’m Lea Wait, and although I now live in Maine, and many of my books are set there, I’ll admit that, technically, I am not a Mainer. I was born in Boston. Boston, indeed, has been the hub of the maternal side of my family since 1889, the year my great-grandmother and grandfather arrived there from Edinburgh to begin their life together, and my grandmother joined them, the requisite nine months later, in 1890.
Those first few years were busy – starting an import business, traveling back and forth to Ireland and Scotland, and managing to make my grandmother the oldest of seven in fairly regular fashion. I don’t know when Fannie Farmer’s cookbooks joined the growing family, but my grandmother once told me her mother often referred to it for “American recipes.” By the time she told me that, of course, that original cookbook was long worn out and my grandmother and mother had their own copies of later editions, one of which is now mine.
I grew up knowing that if Fannie Farmer or Betty Crocker didn’t know the answer about cooking, it wasn’t worth knowing. But it wasn’t until recently that I learned more about Fannie herself.
Born in 1857, she’d suffered a stroke in her teens, and become seriously disabled. Finally, in her mid-twenties, she was able to walk again, although with a limp, and decided she wanted to attend the well-known Boston Cooking School. She graduated when she was 32, and was asked to remain there as an administer, and, eventually, as the director of the school. It was then that she wrote the book she’s remembered for: The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, known almost universally as “Fannie Farmer.” Her publisher, Little Brown, initially turned the book down, so in 1896 Farmer suggested she herself would pay for the first printing of 3,000 copies. They sold, and Little Brown didn’t hesitate again. They made the right decision. Since then the cookbook has gone through many editions, and has sold nearly 4 million copies. (Farmer and her heirs still retain the copyright.)
My editiong of the Cook Book (from 1942,) includes thirty-seven chapters devoted to subjects from menues and beverages to cheeses, garnishes, sauces,poultry and game (including pigeons), confections, pickles, and frozen desserts. At the beginning is a list of “Fifty Basic Recipes for Students and Beginners” which starts with “white bread,” and goes on to include ”brown stock,” “mayonnaise,” “soft custard,” “french souffle,” “puff pastry”, “petits fours, ” and “jelly.” Clearly Fannie had high expectations for her cooks.
Many of my family’s Christmas cookies and puddings come straight from Fannie Farmer, and if I have any doubt about a recipe I remember my mother or grandmother making, I go straight to the book I know may be the source. She seldom fails me.
Thank you, Fannie Farmer, for being a part of my family’s life for more than three generations.