History Lesson: Where Do Recipes Come From?

Being of an inquisitive mind, I am always struck (usually in the most inconvenient of times) with questions like “how does this work?”, “who invented this?”, or even “I wonder why X is this way and not any other way..” In most moments it’s a passing thought and I quickly return my focus to whatever task is at hand and I forget all about my curiosity. However, I have been wondering more and more as I have been exploring the world of baking over the last year, how do people come up with these recipes? And for that matter – how did recipes come to the style and format that they have now? I think of my Grandmother who at 80 years old, can Facetime me whenever she likes, and often amuses her neighbors by asking questions of Alexa. She can also reel a recipe off the top of her head for any number of dishes and baked goods. What must her experiences with recipes be like? Did her mother teach her how to cook a handful of recipes by rote and then as time marched on she encountered the Recipe Card, the recipe on the back of a box or in a magazine, the Food Network on television and now the vast and unending cookbook called “The Internet”?
It is an easily recognized fact that Recipes have existed as long as written language has. There are cuneiform tablets with recipes for meaty stews, bread and beer that date back to early humans from Mesopotamia, Greece, and China, but how did we go from stone tablets with scratchings on them to the 500+ page cookbook with glossy photos and the eternal Pinterest recipe boards?
The simple answer is the advance of widespread literacy. More and more women, who were the primary cooks in homes and institutions, were taught to read and write, to be able to keep a good home, balance the costs of supplies and ensuring the health and nutrition of those she provided for. At this same time, more women moved farther from their parents’ homes than generations before them had. These women learned to cook in new cities without their mothers and sisters around to teach them.
The not so simple answer is the explosion of the industrial revolution. With all of the advances to machinery, sciences, and the applications of these new technologies inside the home, the lessons learned by mothers and grandmothers had little meaning. The first generation of women who had gas or wood fire stove ranges did not have the learning of their ancestors to tell them how to build and maintain a fire inside one of the ranges, how best to test the heat, and how long to bake a cake or a roast. The first generation of women with electric refrigerators pioneered having food available for a much longer window of time than they could have imagined, keeping milk and eggs fresh, and vegetables from wilting in summer heat. These women mastered these new appliances on their own, or through the literature being spread to help the housewife understand and utilize the new tools and products at her disposal.
Along with science’s effects in just about every aspect of life between the 1820s and 1940’s, came the scientific approach to mundane activities, and it was discovered that the best way to share new ways to cook, was with very specific measurements in order to re-create dishes tested and tried. Enter Fannie Merrit Farmer, arguably not the very first pioneer of the modern recipe, but certainly one of the most longest reaching influences on modern cookery.
Fannie Merrit Farmer was born in Boston in 1857 and raised in nearby Medford. Her parents struggled financially, and as the oldest of four girls, Fannie was expected to build herself a professional career to help support the family. She had intended to become a school teacher, but in her late teens she was struck with paralysis and was unable to execute her plans. After years of struggling, in her mid 20’s she had regained enough motion back to work for a wealthy family as a governess, although she limped heavily for the rest of her life. It was her employer who encouraged her to pursue a more serious career in the culinary arts as she showed such skill in the kitchen. During this time period, most of the appliances in the kitchen were not the same as had been used by the generation before, and so cooking schools popped up in every major city and even some large towns to teach women “how to cook”. Truly, they were instructing women how to cook in the new age with new tools and products. Fannie Merritt Farmer enrolled in the Boston Cooking school in 1888 and just after graduating a year later, she joined the staff of the school.
It may be because she was mature or had a history of working with children as a governess, but it is said that Fannie had a great well of patience and a kindly way of instructing which is what made her a good teacher. She gained prominence as a lecturer on “home economics” and “domestic sciences” and was even one of the first women to lecture at Harvard Medical School. She gained nationwide fame as writer of a cooking column in the Woman’s Home Companion for nearly 10 years, and in 1902 she opened her own cooking school, which was successful enough that she was able to support her parents and youngers sisters financially.
So what did Fannie Farmer bring to the recipe that no one else had tried before?

Exacting Measurements.

By 1891 Fannie was named the director of the Boston Cooking school, and so the 1896 edition of the Boston Cooking School Cook Book came out under her direction. Her cookbook departed from other similar works at the time by its insistence on level and exact measurements. Recipes in books prior to Fannie Farmer’s consisted of vague directions such as “a goodly amount of sugar” or “lard the size of a hens egg” based on the assumption that the reader already knew how to cook and could “feel out” the measurements. While standardized measuring cups and spoons already existed, Fannie Farmer insisted that they were the answer. By using standard measurements, new recipes would come out correct the first time, and every time that they were utilized. The novice could now recreate gourmet dishes they had only heard about but never tasted or seen. Those who did not have the time or means to attend rigorous cooking schools could get a toe hold and learn to cook on their own, if only they followed the directions.
Along with exacting measures, Fannie Farmer’s cookbook explained many of the newly established scientific principles behind food, nutrition, and cookery. The information was used to help structure diets, plan meals, select ingredients, and explore new methods of cooking. The cookbook became so popular it saw 21 editions and 4 million copies were sold before Fannie Farmer’s death in 1915. A revised and updated version of her original work, called the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, is still in print today, over 120 years since its original printing. My mother used the Fannie Farmer cookbooks, and my grandmother used the Boston Cooking School Cook Book that HER mother had given to her. I now own a copy of the 1909 edition of the Boston Cooking School Cook Book and I enjoy reading the recipes, as well as the instructions for basic cookery, housekeeping, and hostessing. It reminds me that times have changed, but food keeps us connected to our history.

– Sweet

Works Cited:
– Smallzreid, Kathleen Ann, “The Everlasting Pleasure: Influences on America’s Kitchens, Cooks and Cookery, from 1565 to 2000.” New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1956

– Veit, Helen Zoe, “The Making of the Modern Recipe”, SmithsonianMag.com September 19,2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/making-modern-american-recipe-180964940/

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