Silverbelle Fannie

Today’s selection — from The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Deborah Blum. 

Fannie Farmer’s 1896 cookbook sold millions of copies, gained a devoted following, and had a profoundly positive impact on the food industry:
“In 1903 Fannie Farmer was the most famous cookbook author in the United States. She had become a household name after pub­lishing The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book seven years ear­lier. In it she had included more than recipes, written about more than preparation, presentation, and flavor. She’d also discussed food chemistry and principles of nutrition as she understood them.

The Historical Cooking Project : Fannie Farmer and The Boston Cooking  School Cookbook (1896): A History of Science, Gender, and Food
Fannie Merritt Farmer
‘Food,’ the book began simply, ‘is anything that nourishes the body.’ She proceeded to explain that ‘thirteen elements enter into the composition of the body: oxygen, 62½ percent; carbon, 21½ percent; hydrogen, 10 percent; nitrogen, 3 percent; calcium, phos­phorus, potassium, sulphur, chlorine, sodium, magnesium, iron, and fluorine the remaining 3 percent.’ While other chemical elements were found in food, she noted, ‘as their uses are unknown, [they] will not be considered.’ Farmer’s editor at Little, Brown and Com­pany of Boston had wondered whether women needed such chemical information. Cookbooks, replied Farmer, were an essential form of education for American women, most of whom were afforded little if any opportunity to attend college.
“Little, Brown eventually agreed to print the book, but only if the author herself paid for the first print run. Within a year, Farm­er’s 1896 opus had been reprinted three times; within a decade it had sold close to 400,000 copies (and by the midtwentieth century that number would top two million). Little, Brown’s hesitation worked to Farmer’s advantage. She had agreed to pay; for publishing the book only if she retained control of the rights. By her death in 1914, thanks to her cookbook sales, she held stock in businesses that ranged from railroad-companies to chocolate factories.
“In 1903 she was already financially secure. At forty-six, she could write as she chose. She chose to write a book that she would consider the most important of her career: Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent. The idea had arisen directly out of her own struggles for good health. Born in 1857, the youngest daughter of a Boston printer, she’d suffered a collapse at the age of sixteen. Doctors diag­nosed the cause as a ‘paralytic stroke,’ although later experts would wonder if the girl had suffered a polio infection. For several years Fannie was unable to walk. Her mother nursed her; her father car­ried her from bed to chair. She was in her twenties before she began to hobble around the house; thirty before she was independent enough to enroll as a student at the Boston Cooking School.

“There, in addition to cooking techniques, students learned about germ theory — the understanding that microbes cause illness, still a cutting-edge idea in the nineteenth century — and how to apply hy­gienic principles. They studied the chemistry of food and read the latest research into the principles of nutrition. Within three years she was assisting the principal, and by the time she wrote her famous first cookbook, she had become the head of the cooking school.
“Farmer may have been the most influential author so far to warn of impurities in the food supply. Her devoted audience — composed largely of mothers and homemakers — was particularly receptive to the warning. An entire section of Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent was focused on the ‘unappetizing and unhealthful pollution’ of commercially sold milk. This supposedly ‘pure’ food, she wrote, was still filthy, still too often thinned with water, full of chalk, food dyes, and harmful microorganisms. She joined other Americans advocating for pasteurization, the pathogen-killing heat process widely used in Europe. ‘The pathogenic germs in milk are often causes of typhoid fever, diphtheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, and cholera,’ she warned. Some American dairies, especially in the larger cities, had begun employing the process, but it made their products more expensive. Most dairymen continued to prefer far cheaper chemical preservations. Farmer wanted to alert her devoted readers of the dangers of ‘borax, boracic acid, salicylic acid, benzoic acid, potassium chromate, and carbonate of soda.’

“Earlier cookbook authors had also warned of the risks of food fakery; nineteenth-century recipes had routinely included asides about fraudulent spices or sham coffees. But Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent gained extra attention because of its fa­mous author and because it was published in 1904, a year in which public awareness of food problems was increasing, partly due to press coverage of Wiley’s experiments. That May the New York Times announced that the first group of Chemistry Bureau volun­teers had officially retired from the job of ‘eating poisons under the direction of the Agricultural Department’ and been allowed to re­sume their normal lives. ‘The ill effects of eating drugs used in pre­serving articles of diet are said to be visible on all members of the squad, and one or two of them appear to be on the verge of breaking down,’ the Times noted.”

author: Deborah Blum
title: The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
publisher: Penguin Press
date: Copyright 2018 by Deborah Blum
page(s): 98-100

2 thoughts on “Silverbelle Fannie

  1. Step, thank you so much for today’s topic about Fanny Farmer’s amazing accomplishments. I have been a proud owner of her book for nearly 52 years of our marriage. I never knew any of this things about her life and achievements. I find it most necessary and fascinating information to complement my years of honing my domesticity skills
    Cyndy Roche-Cotter

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