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Gospels of American Cooking

The All New Fanny Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook

Bantam Reference Library, 648 pp., 95 cents

The Joy of Cooking

by Irma S. Rombauer, by Marion Rombauer Becker
Bobbs Merrill, 849 pp., $5.95

The New Settlement Cook Book

Simon & Schuster, 676 pp., $4.95

At the turn of the century, an American cookbook was expected to contain not only recipes for the fashionable dishes of the day, but remedies for everything from leaking faucets to receding hairlines. A cookbook devoted wholly to food was inconceivable. As scientific frontiers expanded and the nature of nutrition began to be understood more clearly, a new kind of cookbook emerged. For the first time, cookbook authors attempted to explain the chemical composition of food and to present their recipes in a clearer, less arbitrary fashion than before. Thus Fanny Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook and The Settlement Cook Book were born. Their immediate success inevitably generated a host of imitators, but it was not until thirty years after their publication that The Joy of Cooking, a cookbook of comparable importance, appeared. Throughout the years these three books have sold millions of copies and might be considered the culinary trinity upon which, for better or worse, the gospel of American cooking has been built.

Each of these basic American cookbooks in their present revised, expanded versions contains no less than 3,000 recipes, to say nothing of tables of food values in the daily diet, vitamin and mineral charts, tables of weights and measures, conversion formulae, freezing timetables, information on caloric intake, and the like. In short, they claim to be “general all-purpose cookbooks, with up-to-the-minute information on all matters pertaining to food and its preparation in the home.” Although they profess to follow the precepts of their original authors, the present books must be judged not by what they were, but by what they are.

The only apparent connection between the first edition of Fanny Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook published in 1896 and the present Bantam paperback edition is the title. But for that, the books might have been written by different authors. And in effect, they were.

After Fanny Farmer’s death in 1915, each successive edition of her book (in all there are ten) was revised until 1923 by members of her family. From then on, the revisions were the sole responsibility of Wilma Lord Perkins, Miss Farmer’s niece. The present version, completed in 1959, is Mrs. Perkins’s sixth revision and, as she explains in her preface, the most “fundamental” and revolutionary of them all.

Graciously granting that Aunt Fanny “invented” the use of level measurements, a system of measuring food by the level teaspoon, tablespoon, and cupful, Mrs. Perkins has nonetheless found it necessary to rewrite The Boston Cooking School Cookbook in its entirety. She has added hundreds of new recipes and adapted a few of her aunt’s old recipes to “new ways, modern ingredients…and the mode of the day….” Were it possible to confront Miss Farmer with her book in its present state, it is doubtful that she would recognize it.

Fanny Merritt Farmer was in every way equipped to write the authoritative Boston Cooking School Cookbook. She was not only a skillful cook but an articulate, inspired teacher besides. Although she had in early life suffered two serious strokes which limited her mobility considerably, the kitchen and lecture platform were her battlegrounds still. Here was no infirm armchair cook fabricating mythical recipes which looked good only on paper; her procedures and recipes, tested over and over again in her classes and demonstrations, really worked. And compared to the cookbooks of her day with their “pinches” of this and “walnuts” of that, her exact measurements bore out her contention that “cooking should and could be a precise and standardized procedure.”

Despite this stern scientific attitude, Fanny Farmer was not insensitive to the blandishments and mysteries of French cooking. In the soup chapter of her original book she states unequivocally: “It cannot be denied that the French excel all nations in the excellence of their cuisine and to their soups and sauces belong the greatest praise. It would be well to follow their example and it is the duty of every housewife to learn the art of soupmaking.” Miss Farmer’s basic brown stock was as impeccable as Escoffier’s and her sauces as solidly constructed. Unfortunately, her knowledge of French cooking was essentially theoretical and she never fully grasped the major dishes of the classical cuisine. Her lobster à l’américaine for example, was made simply with tomato sauce and sherry. This was a far cry from that fabled dish with its cognac-flamed lobster simmered in white wine, fish fumet, shallots, fresh tomatoes, and tarragon. But when Miss Farmer described the manner in which live lobsters were to be handled, whatever the dish, or the techniques of boning a chicken or larding a rump of beef for a boeuf à la mode, she was on sure ground. Where she reigned really supreme was in her exact descriptions of homelier dishes such as stews, roasts, and pot-roasts, dumplings, and puddings. The results could always be depended upon.

With the publication of the second revised edition in 1918 and the appearances subsequently of nine more revisions, each more drastically altered than the previous ones, Fanny Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook slowly lost its special character and became just another overblown cookbook—and not a very good one at that. To be sure, Mrs. Perkins has retained in this latest version a number of her aunt’s original recipes but they are so outnumbered by the new material that they might as well have been omitted altogether.

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. Miss Farmer’s original recipe for lobster à l’américaine is presumably improved by substituting for tomato sauce 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. And as a coda, the cook is instructed to add sherry to taste before serving. Even if one disregards its traditional antecedents, lobster à l’américaine in this version is not acceptable. In the same chapter, a recipe for crab meat Mornay calls for a cream sauce made with much too much flour and cornstarch. If the recipe is followed precisely, it will be virtually impossible for the cook to mix into this doughy mass the one pound of crab meat specified.

Other French dishes are given even rougher treatment. A Swiss fondue, according to Mrs. Perkins, is to be made with one pound of Swiss cheese melted in 3/4 of a cup of white wine (or vermouth!). The glaring omission from this dish of the traditional kirsch is bad enough, but the proportion of cheese to wine is completely unrealistic. If the cook were able to melt the excessive amount of cheese in the wine without the two repelling each other immediately—which would surely happen without the use of a binding agent such as flour or cornstarch—the resultant cheese mixture would be much too solid to use as a dip. In fact, it is unlikely that it would edible at all. The crowning absurdity is a coquille St. Jacques made with creamed lobster, shirmp, crabmeat, and mushrooms—and no scallops! Mrs. Perkins evidently does not know that the French name for scallops is coquilles St. Jacques.

French cooking in this cookbook aside (and disastrous examples could be cited endlessly), Mrs. Perkins fares quite as badly in more conventional areas. She states categorically that roast lamb will be “pinkish” at a meat-thermometer reading of 170 degrees F., medium rare at 175 degrees F., and well done at 180 degrees F. 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.

Even so basic a matter as roasting a small chicken has been turned into a fiasco. A 2-1/2 pound chicken roasted as Mrs. Perkins suggests—that is, for two hours at 350 degrees F., including 15 minutes at 450 degrees F.—would literally fall apart before it could be carved. Turkeys, too, don’t stand a chance in Mrs. Perkins’s oven. According to her timing chart, a 4 to 6 pound turkey is to be roasted for 3 to 4 hours at 325 degrees F., and the roasting times indicated for larger birds increase in almost geometrical proportion to their size. There is no indication whether they are stuffed or not. In fact, a stuffed 6 pound turkey roasted at 325 degrees F., should never be cooked for more than 2 hours, if that much. Beyond that point the meat will shred and fall apart.

In the face of all this, to say that Wilma Lord Perkins and her publishers are responsible for the deplorable state of American cooking would perhaps be going too far, but that they must share part of that responsibility can hardly be denied. After all, Fanny Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook has sold well over 3 million copies and is unfortunately still going strong.

On another plane altogether is The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and her daughter Marion Rombauer Becker. Authoritative, lucid, witty, and encyclopedic, The Joy of Cooking is not only a cookbook to cook from but also to read. Although it, too, has gone through various mutations, enlargements, and revisions, the present edition is in every way an improvement over the earlier and shorter version of thirty years ago.

For the revision of her mother’s book, Mrs. Becker has wisely enlisted the aid of an army of experts including two French chefs and any number of technical consultants, both private and governmental. Their note of authority sounds clearly throughout the book. The Joy of Cooking is, like most books of its type, an eclectic one, but the French recipes included are particularly notable for their clarity, authenticity, and honesty. And Mrs. Becker writes about wines too, with similar taste and perception. To read in an American basic cookbook the assertion—among others—that “sparkling Burgundy is definitely not a substitute for champagne. It is an inferior product,” comes as a pleasant shock after the silly chatter of other cookbooks on the same subject.

But grateful as we are for the practical aspects of The Joy of Cooking, it is the personal style of the Rombauers—in turn naive and knowing, stilted and colloquial—that finally gives the book its special and endearing character. We can almost forgive the ladies for thrusting upon us a number of culinary indignities such as a Banana Nut Salad, a Chicken Salad with Pineapple and Raisins, or something called a Golden Glow Gelatine Salad, when a few paragraphs later they inveigh loudly and well against the rancid “well-seasoned wooden salad bowl,” or with straight faces contend that “the Purist frowns on fruit salad except for dessert and we ourselves have shuddered at the omnipresent peach half with cottage cheese and mayonnaise.”

They are not above more earthy references. Although the Elizabethan cookbook writer Henry Buttes thought nothing of referring to chestnuts as “instruments of lust,” or calling asparagus and carrots “provokers of Venus,” the Rombauers, wittingly or not, go even a step further. Their recipe for puff paste begins as follows: “To become an amateur champion, keep in mind first and foremost that this most delicate and challenging of pastries must be made the way porcupines make love—that is, very, very carefully…,” and goes on to describe the process of making puff paste in as clear and brilliant a fashion as it has ever been done.

The Rombauers are equally entertaining when they become “literary.” In the course of a matter-of-fact sentence, the unwary reader is apt to trip across the social “salon-fähig” to describe the social acceptability of eating unskinned tomatoes because of their vitamins; “langniappe” to indicate the cheapness of soup bones; and “symbiotic” to emphasize the black truffle’s relationship to the oak tree. Cooking with The Joy of Cooking makes even its improbable title seem palatable.

But not even the sub-title “The Way to a Man’s Heart” can relieve the essential dreariness of The New Settlement Cook Book. For inexplicable reasons, a few of our culinary literati, notably M. F. K. Fisher, have stoutly championed this book for years. In fact, they have described it as the best book of its kind. In its present revision, it is perhaps the worst.

Published in Milwaukee five years after Fanny Farmer’s book, The Settlement Cook Book consisted originally of little more than a hundred and fifty pages of type, including advertising. Its goals couldn’t have been more laudable: to provide cooking lessons which would give the large number of immigrants arriving in Milwaukee from impoverished countries the opportunity to learn about “American food, proper nutrition, sanitation in cooking, and economy of food preparation which was so important to them.” And this, the first edition of The Settlement Cook Book accomplished clearly and precisely. The success of the book was phenomenal. Before long, it was revised, enlarged, and finally mass-produced by the Settlement Cook Book Company, a non-profit organization devoted exclusively to the publication of this, their only book.

Most of the recipes in The New Settlement Cook Book are vaguely Germanic or Middle European in character, but they are much too impersonal, simplified, and unimaginative to be of much interest to anyone with the slightest knowledge of cooking. Every dish, whatever its origin has been “Americanized” with a vengeance. A sauce ravigote—the classic oil, vinegar, and fresh herb dressing—is here made with a cooked white sauce (of all things!) acidulated with vinegar and flavored with onions and parsley. And what is one to say of a brown sauce composed of a butter and flour roux moistened with water?

All the quasi-sophisticated recipes such as a filet of beef with artichokes or lobster à la Mornay (made with canned spaghetti), or even an Hungarian chicken paprika (made with milk), have an air of self-conscious deprivation, as if the ghosts of the impoverished immigrants for whom the book was originally intended were hovering over each dish disapprovingly. For the good people of Milwaukee, The New Settlement Cook Book is a veritable fiscal cornucopia. It supports every conceivable philanthropic enterprise in the city. But for those of us living elsewhere, the book’s benefits must of necessity be culinary ones. And these are, unfortunately, pitifully few.

Letters

Cookbook Controversy May 20, 1965

Cookbook Controversy May 20, 1965

Cookbook Controversy May 20, 1965

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