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The Fabulous Fannie Farmer - Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF

I'd wager almost every0ne has a treasured family recipe. One written on a worn, stained card or passed orally through the family. One with fun measurements or grandma's favorite special alteration, half notated. One that's presided over many generations of family gatherings. This wonderful biography chronicles the determination of a wickedly smart and talented kitchen scientist who codified the standardized measurements and format used in recipes today.

Book cover - girl tasting a soup froma pot, as vegetables float in the steam aabove the pot.

The Fabulous Fannie Farmer: Kitchen Scientist and America’s Cook

Author: Emma Bland Smith

Illustrator: Susan Reagan

Publisher: Calkins Creek/Astra Publishing House (2024)

Ages: 7-10

Nonfiction


Themes:

Cooking, kitchen science, standardized measurements, and humor.


Synopsis:

Fannie Farmer, America’s most famous cooking teacher, discovers that precise measurements are a recipe for cooking success in this STEAM picture book that includes two of her classic recipes.


When Fannie Farmer learned to cook in the late 1800s, recipes could be pretty silly. They might call for “a goodly amount of salt” or “a lump of butter” or “a suspicion of nutmeg.” Girls were supposed to use their “feminine instincts” in the kitchen (or maybe just guess). Despite this problem, Fannie loved cooking, so when polio prevented her from going to college, she became a teacher at the Boston Cooking School. Unlike her mother or earlier cookbook writers, Fannie didn’t believe in feminine instincts. To her, cooking was a science. She’d noticed that precise measurements and specific instructions ensured that cakes rose instead of flopped and doughnuts fried instead of burned. Students liked Fannie’s approach so much that she wrote a cookbook. Despite skepticism from publishers, Fannie’s book was a recipe for success.


Written with humor and brought to life with charming illustrations, this book explores the origins of Fannie Farmer’s quintessentially American cookbook. A cookbook that was beloved because it allowed anyone to make tasty things, with no guessing, no luck—and certainly no feminine instincts—required.


Opening Lines:

In a house near Boston in the late 1800s, Fannie Farmer sat

at the kitchen table, swinging her legs and peeling potatoes.


Or so we can imagine.


Like many girls across America, Fannie likely grew up

learning to cook from her mother, making dishes that had

been passed down for generations.


What I LOVED about this book:

Starting on a craft note - this is a wonderful nonfiction biography example of how to handle a lack of direct information on a subject's childhood. Encapsulating the standards of the time, the known weather, or other documented common activities or beliefs can help establish what likely occurred in the subject's life. And Emma Bland Smith masterfully found a way to be very clear about what was known and what was supposed.


I love the way Emma sets both the tone of the biography, "the instructions were often cloudier than clam chowder, and the measurements could be downright silly!" and the real difficulty in learning to cook back then. "Women weren’t supposed to need exact measurements and instructions—cooking was all about feminine instincts." Susan Reagan's deeply textured, historically accurate, images are just stunning. I love Fannie's expressions and I would feel the same if told me to use "a goodly amount" of salt in a recipe.

Internal spread - on left, five foods and their imprecise measurements (such as "a suspicion of nutmeg"). On right girl stiring soup as her mother works dough on the table.

Text © Emma Bland Smith, 2024. Image © Susan Reagan, 2024.


Although Fannie loved cooking, her dream was to become a teacher. Be sure to notice the blackboard behind the schoolhouse, Susan Reagan has left a very important clue there for observant readers. And this delicious, mouth-watering illustration also includes the first of many quotations by Fannie peppered throughout the book.

Internal spread - on left, girl setting out a cake on a table full of treats, breads, and a turkey. On the right, set off as a dream is a schoolhouse and blackboard.

Text © Emma Bland Smith, 2024. Image © Susan Reagan, 2024.

After polio immobilized one of her legs, it seemed Fannie's plans were derailed. It took years, but when she could walk again, she began cooking again. I love the playful way Emma sprinkles cooking analogies throughout the biography. Fannie was very smart, and scientifically inclined, so as she "whipped and simmered, something revolutionary was cooking in her head . . . she noticed that precise measurements made a whole heap of difference." Although measuring cups and spoons existed, most people still relied on insincts and their mother's "suspicion of nutmeg," instead of exact precision.


At 31 Fannie attended Boston Cooking School. Moving from student, to assistant, and finally teacher, Fannie fulfilled her dream; teaching women to be thoughtful and scientific cooks. As women flocked to the school and her classes, Fannie conquered the school's cookbook, determined to help anyone (everyone) be a successful cook. When she took the finished book to a publisher, they were skeptical. Though ultimately, she had the 'last laugh', influencing generations of cooks and laying the foundation for modern recipe books. And her 1896 cookbook is still in print!

Internal spread - of a store full of women buying Fannie's cookbook.

Text © Emma Bland Smith, 2024. Image © Susan Reagan, 2024.

I adore Susan's illustrations. Her colors and textures gorgeously capture the period clothing, life style, and kitchens. They totally immerse and transport the reader into Fannie's world. And this particular image always makes me smile. I'll let you discover why when you read the book! In addition to featuring two of Fannie's recipes - Popovers and Angel Food Cake, the book has wonderfully detailed back matter which sifts through the amazing aspects of Fannie's life and legacy, features photographs of her, and explores the revolution her cookbook caused. Additionally, it provides cooking resources for kids, a timeline, and a detailed bibliography. Whether you're a cook or not, this is such a delicious biography of a pioneering woman determined to capture and pass on the precision and science of cooking.


Resources:

Photo of a collage of five kitchen science projects for kids.
  • curious why Fannie's called a kitchen scientist? Try some or all of these kitchen science dishes (projects).

  • what is your favorite dish to eat? Have you ever made it? Write a recipe for the dish?

  • check out Emma Bland Smith's video introduction to Fannie's story and her inspiration in writing the book.


If you missed the fun interview with Emma Bland Smith on Monday, find it (here).


This post is part of a series by authors and KidLit bloggers called Perfect Picture Book Fridays. For more picture book suggestions and resources see Susanna Leonard Hill's Perfect Picture Books.

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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