Arts and Leisure

The Great Fannie Farmer Cookbook Controversy

When a highbrow critic gave a scathing review of the 11th edition of the Fannie Farmer cookbook in The New York Review of Books, Fannie’s defenders hit back but hard.

The 11th edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.

The 11th edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.

It was 1965, and foodies followed with delight the catty controversy over the updated version of Fannie Farmer's seminal cookbook. Two other important cookbooks had also been updated: The Settlement Cook Book and The Joy of Cooking. The three books -- 'the culinary trinity upon which, for better or worse, the gospel of American cooking has been built,' were the subject of the review.

Cooking Gospel

Fannie Farmer, born on March 23, 1857, overcame polio and the lack of a formal education to write one of the most popular cookbooks in history, the Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. Her recipes were easy to follow with standard measurements, and her book covered a lot of ground with more than 1,200 recipes, including Yankee favorites and exotic foreign dishes.

During Fannie Farmer’s lifetime, 360,000 copies of the Boston Cooking-School Cookbook were sold. After she died, the cookbook was revised several times by her sister Cora, Cora's son, Herbert, and his wife, Wilma Lord Perkins. Wilma Lord Perkins alone revised the 11th edition, the first to be revised without the involvement of at least one of Fannie Farmer’s blood relatives.

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Reviewer Michael Field launched his broadside under the headline Gospels of American Cooking on April 8, 1965. He attacked the cookbook’s recipe for lobster à l’américaine as unacceptable.  The coquille St. Jacques was an absurdity, the roast chicken a fiasco and turkey didn’t stand a chance. “Were it possible to confront Miss Farmer with her book in its present state, it is doubtful that she would recognize it,” sniffed Field.

Into the breach stepped her publisher, Robert H. Fetridge, Jr., of Little, Brown & Co., and reader Richard D. Birdsall of New London, Conn.

“Let’s spell her name correctly,” shot back Fetridge in a letter published in the May 20, 1965 issue of the Review. (Field had spelled it ‘Fanny’ – ouch.)

Birdsall wrote his stomach 'rumbled in protest' at Mr. Fields’ ‘fanciful diatribe,’ which was wrong on lamb cookery.

The fight was on.

Dogmatic Recipes

Michael Field's review of Wilma Lord Perkins' work was scathing. “Mrs. Perkins has taken it upon herself (there is no indication that she used a professional consultant) to include dogmatic recipes from the classic French cuisine. Almost without exception they are technically inaccurate and historically incorrect,” he wrote.

A recipe for crab meat Mornay calls for a cream sauce made with much too much flour and cornstarch, he complained. The coquille St. Jacques was made with no scallops! “Mrs. Perkins evidently does not know that the French name for scallops is coquilles St. Jacques,” he wrote.

And this: “Obviously Mrs. Perkins has never cooked lamb with a thermometer or she would know that the correct readings would be pink at 150 degrees F., and well done at 160 degrees to 165 degrees F., directions on most meat thermometers notwithstanding.”

Finally, he wrote, if a cook were to follow Mrs. Wilma Lord Perkins instructions for roasting chicken, ‘it would literally fall apart.’  Turkeys had no chance.

The Publisher Fights Back

The first Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cookbook

The first Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cookbook

Robert H. Fetridge, Jr.,  was a match for Michael Field’s cattiness. "We thought we’d let you know, since it isn’t mentioned in your cookbook article in the April 8 issue, that we are the publishers of The Fannie Farmer,” he began.

“We think your reviewer should have read the book and checked its history more thoroughly, and tested out recipes he says won’t work,” Fetridge continued. “Our recipe for crab meat Mornay is a Fannie Farmer recipe, not a later addition ...  It mixes easily and is delicious.”

And of Field's criticisms of the roast chicken recipe: “We can’t find in the book—certainly not in the directions for roasting chicken—the chicken roasting times and temperatures your reviewer says are there…”

Field was happy  to acknowledge with gratitude  'a nugget or two of constructive criticism.' For the rest, he wrote, 'we hope we have set straight at least some of this fantastically distorted record.'

New York Review reader Richard Birdsall, in a letter published in the same edition, added a spirited defense, concluding, “I apologize for lapsing into Mr. Field’s manner of pontificating on things gastronomical—an area where circumspection and a modest relativism is the only wisdom. But it is my taste buds, my olfactories, my stomach against his.”

Michael Field Replies

Michael Field happily replied to his critics in the May 20 issue. He quickly dismissed Birdsall’s disagreement over the proper temperature to cook lamb: “…His retinas too, must be of a superior order. Try as I will I am unable to detect the slightest touch of pink in lamb cooked to an internal temperature of 180 F., the temperature recommended by Mr. Birdsall.

Then Field laid into the publisher: “If Mr. Fetridge knew as much about cooking as he presumably knows about advertising and marketing, he might have tempered his indignation with a little caution,” he wrote. “His defense of Mrs. Wilma Lord Perkins has only gallantry to recommend it.”

He returned to the crabmeat Mornay issue:  “I would suggest that Mr. Fetridge “test out” this recipe and then add 1 lb. of crabmeat to his granitic sauce Mornay when it is done. I’ll eat it if he will.”

He had a zinger about the roast chicken, too: “Mr. Fetridge and Mrs. Perkins evidently don’t know Miss Farmer’s book as well as they think they do. They will find on page 219 of the Bantam Reference Library edition of their book a recipe for Herbed Roast Chicken with exact temperatures and timings for overcooking it.”

And then, Field delivered the coup de grace:

Properly bred Boston ladies over sixty will have nothing to do with any version of Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook published after 1928. In fact, they refuse to admit it exists. And, of course, they are right. As I indicated in my review of April 8th, the only true Fannie Farmer cookbook is the original one.

This story has been updated from the 2014 version.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Molly Landrigan

    April 9, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Who is Michael Field? Does he do anything but eat the recipes?

  2. Pingback: Was Fannie Farmer a Good Cook? - New England Historical Society

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