Fannie Farmer Cooking for the Sick

Fannie Farmer Cooking for the Sick


Long before Julia Childs captured the attention of American housewives with her French cuisine in the 1960s another American revolutionized home cooking with her standardization of measurements and practical recipes for the Bostonian housewife.

Fannie Farmer, the polio survivor, turned student, turned principal, and later author, was well known for her scientific study of food. She reworked old recipes and taught the science behind food at the Boston School of Cooking where she became the principal at 36 years old. Her students were motivated by her fortitude and constant strive toward precision and perfection.

Marjorie Mills, the Boston Herald’s longtime food editor, described Fannie Farmer as ‘limping briskly about her platform kitchen, teaching some 200 students. She was a prim girl with vibrant enthusiasm who arrived early at school laden with market supplies and was the last to leave at night.’

“[Farmer] was an extraordinary woman of charming personality, boundless energy and original ideas,’’ read a 1947 article in The Boston Globe, which referred to Farmer as a “New England spinster school ma’am.’

“Her bright blue eyes, red hair and vivacious personality made people overlook her plain face and the pince-nez she always wore,” said Elizabeth Schlesinger. “She was plump and had no interest in dress, but a maid who accompanied her on lecture trips saw that she always looked well.


She set the example for standard measurement, changing the terms “a pinch of this” or “a teacup of milk”, to implementing measuring tools such as tablespoons, cups, and teaspoons. Her descriptions were written as, “a cupful is a measured level, a teaspoon is a measured level, etc.” These standards earned her the name, “the mother of level measurements.”

Fannie Merritt Farmer’s self-published collection of recipes, The 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, was 600 pages, contained almost 1,500 recipes, and sold for $2. (The title was later changed to The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.) The publishing company did not believe the book would sell but Fannie knew better and she bought the first 3000 copies with her own money. Nicknamed “The Bride’s Bible” the investment proved worthy, selling 21 editions and 360,000 copies during her lifetime.

She taught basics of cooking to the regular housewife with the goal of improving the wife’s ability to care for the health of the family. It was her later work, motivated by her own infirmity during childhood, that led to her writing the 1904 book, Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent .

She knew that people who were ill would need special foods and diets to help them get well. She taught nurses and hospital dieticians about these special needs and lectured doctors at the Harvard Medical School.

Quotes from her book:
• With the progress of knowledge the needs of the human body have not been forgotten. During the last decade, much time has been given by scientists to the study of foods, and their dietetic value, and it is a subject which rightfully should demand much consideration from all.
• I certainly feel that the time is not far distant when a knowledge of the principles of diet will be an essential part of one’s education. Then mankind will eat to live, be able to do better mental and physical work, and disease will be less frequent.
• Progress in civilization has been accompanied by progress in cookery.


Fannie’s book covered the science behind food, labeling what we now refer to as proteins, carbohydrates, sugars, starches, and calories. Chapters were devoted to the science behind early childhood growth and development, and the importance of healthy food in a child’s diet. 113 years later we still use these same basic principles with regards to feeding our children foods that aid so importantly to their diet. She spoke about sending a child to school with a meal stating their success as school depended on a healthy breakfast. Fannie made the case for sugar, but warned about the effects of sugar on teeth, and how care must be taken to avoid sugar after the child had brushed their teeth for the evening.
Chapters covered digestion, food and health vs. drugs, food for the sick, cooking for the sick, and the importance of water. The chapter regarding alcohol included the science behind different types of alcohol and this warning, “Distilled liquors are responsible for 9/10ths of the evil results of intemperance.” Only doctors and dietitians should administer alcohol during these times.

1. When the pulse is persistently weak.
2. When there is persistent high temperature
3. When there is nervous exhaustion.
4. When there is tremor or low delirium.
5. When the digestive system fails to do its work.
6. When the ages are feeble or exhausted.
7. Cases of shock or accident.

She writes about circumstances that may require wine, or brandy, or malt liquor. Measurements are given as to how many ounces so that the patient would not become intoxicated.
Tea drinkers would be interested to know that tea leaves are steeped 3 minutes only, because after 5 minutes too much tannin is released. Tannic acid stimulates digestion, but on an empty stomach it acts as a diuretic.

“Excessive tea drinkers are apt to become nervous, to suffer from insomnia and mental depression. The habit must be closely guarded, for the habitual, excessive tea drinker often become a nervous wreck.”

The cookbook is an impressive collection of recipes and the science behind each category of food is well documented. Fannie Farmer certainly pioneered the science of food and her research toward helping the sick can be accurately termed as remarkable.

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