|The Old Littleton Road home built by Fannie Farmer. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)
While she revolutionized modern cooking and left an indelible print on modern cuisine, few know that Fannie Farmer was deeply fond of Harvard and left a legacy here in the form of a four-bedroom house on Old Littleton Road, christened “Weldon.”
A close friend of Clara Endicott Sears, the founder of Fruitlands Museum, Farmer was drawn to the town and planned to spend the summer months here, when illness took her life at the age of 58. At a time when few women did so, Farmer made a large fortune as a result of the cooking and publishing career she came to relatively late in life. Her legend endures today with the cookbook that bears her name.
Born in Boston in 1857, Fannie Merritt Farmer was one of four daughters born to Mary and Franklin Farmer. At the age of 17, Farmer was stricken with what is now believed to have been polio. She was bedridden and paralyzed and remained an invalid well into her 20s. Although she eventually learned to walk again, she was never able to complete her high school diploma and was considered an unlikely candidate for marriage. Her parents considered her unusually bright, however, and urged her to continue her education at the Boston Cooking School and become a cooking teacher. At the age of 31, Farmer entered the cooking school and took it by storm, not only graduating with her teaching diploma, but also becoming the assistant principal. Two years later, after the death of the principal, Farmer took her place at the head of the school and began the transformation of American cooking techniques still in place today.
The biggest innovation Farmer is noted for is the use of standardized measurement. Before, cookbooks relied on story-like paragraph instructions that asked cooks to use a handful of one ingredient, or a pinch of another. Her emphasis on level, precise measurement led her to gradually revise the school’s standard text, Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book. She redesigned the book to free readers from any moments of hesitation or uncertainty in the kitchen and replaced its colloquial style with more scientific language and a standardized format. Little mention is made of the Boston Cooking School itself, or the people who preceded her in helping to produce the original writing of the book. Farmer helped herself to Mrs. Lincoln’s work, but stamped the material with her own personality—or perhaps it is more accurate to say that she drained it carefully of Mrs. Lincoln’s. Instead of the comfortable, discursive way in which Mrs. Lincoln addressed her readers, as if she were chatting with each one personally, Farmer chose a style that was businesslike and to the point. And whereas Mrs. Lincoln took the role of hostess, making technical information accessible to women by delivering it in a cozy way, Farmer preferred the more distant role of lecturer.
After revising the book, Farmer approached Boston publishers Little, Brown with the newly renamed Boston Cooking School Cookbook. Cautious and conservative, the publisher was unwilling to take a chance on the cookbook, but finally drew up an agreement whereby Farmer would be responsible for publication costs and Little, Brown would produce and distribute the book as her agent. The book was a phenomenal success: after its publication in 1896, it was reprinted twice in 1897, and then once again every year until 1906. By the time of Farmer’s death in 1915, the “Fannie Farmer cookbook,” as it was commonly known, sat on more than 360,000 shelves in kitchens across the country.
|Fannie Farmer. (Courtesy photo)
A year after Farmer published the revised cookbook, the Boston Cooking School outgrew its original home and moved to larger quarters. In addition to her emphasis on teaching standardized measurement, Farmer was renowned for her direct approach when teaching: energetic, solidly built, and with a bright-red coif of hair, she was a striking presence in the classroom and was never accused of being a dainty eater.
The Boston Cooking School focused on teaching women not only to be cooks, but also classroom teachers. However, over time Farmer lost interest in teaching, and she resigned in 1902. The class of 1903 was the last in the history of the school, but many students followed her to her own Fannie Farmer School of Cookery, where she taught general cooking courses in a space that included four separate kitchens.
Restaurants were a constant source of inspiration for Farmer, and she visited any number of them, both in Boston and New York. If she found something she liked and could not figure out what was in it, she would ask the chef for the recipe. If he was unwilling to provide it, she more than once spirited away part of her entrée to be analyzed later at the school.
With a solid record of financial and career success behind her, Farmer became intrigued with the idea of building a house in the country close to her friend Sears. With an architect, Farmer designed a beautiful four-bedroom home on seven acres on Old Littleton Road. Named “Weldon,” a play on the compliment for a job well done, Farmer was never able to live in the dream home she designed. Just as the foundation was set, she become ill with what is now known as arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
Farmer died in 1915 at the relatively young age of 58, and was interred in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. She left her estate to her mother, her sister Cora, and her brother-in-law Dexter Perkins, who moved into the house upon its completion in 1916. Their grandson, Brad Perkins, lived in the house until 1980, when it was sold to the family still living there today.
Eventually, Farmer’s relatives chose not to renew the publication contract for the cookbook with Little, Brown, and the rights to the Fannie Farmer name were sold to Californian Marion Cunningham, who still writes cookbooks in the Farmer fashion. Today, Farmer’s great-great nephew Dexter Perkins continues the family’s culinary tradition in Grand Forks, N.D., in a restaurant he owns with his wife Betsy.
Perkins contributed a number of recipes to the new cookbook published by the Harvard Woman’s Club, Apple Blossoms and Harvest Time: Recipes from Harvard Kitchens. The cookbook, which also includes a short history of Farmer’s life, is available for sale at Westward Orchards, Phil’s Apples, Carlson Orchards, Idylwilde Farms, and the Fruitlands Museums gift shop.
Note: Lynn Cooke contributed to this article.