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 cookbook. Two other important cookbooks had also been updated: The Settlement Cook Book and The Joy of Cooking. The three books comprised “the culinary trinity upon which, for better or worse, the gospel of American cooking has been built.” According to the review, at least.

Cooking Gospel

Fannie Farmer, born on March 23, 1857, overcame polio and the lack of a formal education. She wrote 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. It had 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.

Fannie Farmer

 

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. (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 replied with an attack on Wilma Lord Perkins. Her “dogmatic recipes from the classic French cuisine“ were not only technically inaccurate but 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.’

The Publisher Fights Back

The first Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cookbook

The first Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cookbook

Publisher Robert H. Fetridge, Jr.,  was a match for Michael Field’s cattiness.

“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 wrote. “Our recipe for crab meat Mornay is a Fannie Farmer recipe, not a later addition …  It mixes easily and is delicious.”

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.

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.”

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 was updated in 2022. 

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