• Email
  • Print

Cookbook Controversy

In response to:

Gospels of American Cooking from the April 8, 1965 issue

To the Editors:

We thought we’d let you know, since it isn’t mentioned in your cookbook article in the April 8 issue, that we are the publishers of The Fannie Farmer (let’s spell her name correctly) Boston Cooking School Cookbook, and have been since it first appeared in 1896.

We think your reviewer should have read the book and checked its history more thoroughly, and tested out recipes he says won’t work. Our recipe for crab meat Mornay is a Fannie Farmer recipe, not a later addition (see A New Book of Cookery, which she published in 1912 as a “sequel” to the Cooking School Cookbook and which was merged with the latter in 1923). It mixes easily and is delicious. Our Swiss fondue is authentic and excellent, the cheese melts and blends very well. The recipe does contain Kirsch, in exactly the optional fashion to reflect the happy breadth and variety of “classic French cuisine.”

Also excellent, whether or not considered “classic,” is the lobster à l’américaine, which is, as in Miss Farmer’s original recipe, cooked with sherry, prior to the addition of sherry “to taste” at the end. Naturally the tomato sauce in the 1896 recipe has been shifted to a commercially available and satisfactory ingredient; should the dish be reserved for those who can prepare in advance a tomato sauce which itself requires a brown stock with a minimum cooking time of over eight hours? The brown stock, incidentally, is intact in the current edition of Fannie Farmer (true, with a minuscule change in quantity and with the cooking time reduced to perhaps four hours); so if Miss Farmer’s brown stock “was as impeccable as Escoffier’s,” it must be still.

We can’t find in the book—certainly not in the directions for roasting chicken—the chicken roasting times and temperatures your reviewer says are there. Even if an occasional roasting time in the book may seem long, the book abounds in signals that roasting time for any meat or poultry depends on various factors and that times given are therefore approximate. When possible, it supplies simple tests for seeing whether the cooking is finished, as it does for roast chicken.

Of course Mrs. Wilma Lord Perkins, who has edited the Cooking School Cookbook since 1930 (not 1923), has had professional aid; besides, she’s professional herself. The book is the reverse of “overblown”; it is remarkably condensed—it contains most of Miss Farmer’s recipes as well as many other fine ones. Part of its capacity to cover so much ground in a nice uncrowded way derives from the crisp and clear language characteristic of Fannie Farmer from the start; part derives from a shift in the tenth edition to a spacesaving form of recipe presentation which, Mrs. Perkins made it abundantly clear in her preface to the current edition, was what she referred to as a fundamental (not revolutionary) change from previous editions. She even stated specifically that “In spite of the wealth of new recipes, very few old ones have been removed.”

Naturally since 1896, recipes and other parts of the text have been adapted, combined, revised, omitted, inserted, restored, and so on—this is a living book, not a museum piece. Of course mistakes have sometimes been made, and we are happy to acknowledge with gratitude in this regard a nugget or two of constructive criticism in your review. For the rest, we hope we have set straight at least some of this fantastically distorted record.

Robert H. Fetridge, Jr.

Little, Brown and Co., Boston

Michael Field replies:

(1) 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.

But Mr. Moore has little excuse for such devotion to the first edition of The Joy of Cooking Though his small complaints about the new edition may be justified if one is addicted to dishes such as applesauce pudding and chocolate cake, Mrs. Becker has nevertheless retained all the important features, if not all the recipes, of her mother’s remarkable book. Whatever the inconsistencies in the text (there are more amusing ones than Mr. Moore has chosen), they do not lead to disaster. Rolled and hot biscuits may be made with equal success with the temperature of the solid and liquid ingredients at either 70 degrees or 40 degrees.

Teutonic passion for system” aside, does Mr. Moore really feel that the importance of a cross reference is determined by its length?

(2) With the best will in the world, I have attempted to find those soups and shellfish recipes of Mrs. Perkins in which her “Boston insights” have improved upon the “French originals.” Without Mr. Birdsall’s prompting, this is a thought, I must confess, which would never have occurred to me.

Does he mean, for example, soupe à l’oignon? Mrs. Perkin’s version is made with sauteed onions and canned consommé (or water), thickened with flour. Her suggestion that the finished soup be allowed to “mellow a day to develop the finest flavor” would seem to make any comment superfluous. Or other examples: a Cream of Artichoke soup made with Jerusalem artichokes (not artichokes at all, but tubers), and flavored in a most un-Gallic fashion with sauterne; no recipe at all for consommé on the grounds that it is too expensive and time consuming to prepare; a Pea Soup Louise (whoever she may be) made with canned pea soup, a bouillon cube, heavy cream and white wine or champagne. Enough?

Mrs. Perkins’s seafood chapter hardly bears extended discussion either. Of the seventy or so recipes listed, not more than ten, if that many, could be described as based on “French originals.” In my review, I discussed two: a disastrous Crab Meat Mornay and an American lobster à l’américaine. Of the remaining eight or so, a couple of recipes like lobster Newburg and moules mcrinières are done adequately enough. As for the others, if they present any particularly new insights, Mr. Birdsall’s perceptions (to say nothing of his “taste buds, olfactories and stomach”) must be considerably more acute than mine. And his retinas too, must be of a superior order. Try as I will I am unable to detect the slightest touch of pink in lamb cooked to an internal temperature of 180 F., the temperature recommended by Mr. Birdsall.

(3) Mr. Fetridge’s suggestion that “your reviewer” read the book, check its history more thoroughly, and “test out” recipes, is a sound one. And, of course, that is exactly what I have done. 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. His defense of Mrs. Wilma Lord Perkins has only gallantry to recommend it.

I am indebted to Mr. Fetridge for the information that Crab Meat Mornay was not included in the first edition of Miss Farmer’s book but is, nonetheless, one of her original recipes. More the pity, then, that Mrs. Perkins failed to recognize its inaccuracy. According to any authority Mr. Fetridge wishes to choose (Miss Farmer can be one of them, Boston Cooking School Cookbook, Bantam Reference Library, p. 94) a sauce Mornay is always made with a medium béchamel, velouté or cream sauce base to which cheese is added. The usual proportion of the butter-flour roux to liquid for any of these sauces is 3 tablespoons each of butter and flour to 2 cups of liquid; occasionally the flour is increased, at most, by a tablespoon. According to Miss Farmer’s recipe for Crab Meat Mornay, the roux-liquid ratio appears to be correct until one discovers that she has also added 2-1/2 tablespoons of cornstarch. Cornstarch, it should be noted, has at least twice the thickening power of flour. Obviously, then, Miss Farmer’s 2 cups of sauce Mornay in this recipe is to be made with the equivalent of 8 tablespoons of flour instead of three. Moreover, 2 egg yolks are to be beaten into the finished sauce. This will thicken it even further. 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.

Curiously enough, Mrs. Perkins’s Swiss Fondue, despite Mr. Fetridge’s certainty of its excellence, suffers from the same faults as Miss Farmer’s Crab Meat Mornay. Were it possible to melt the Swiss cheese in the amount of liquid the recipe calls for, the mixture would be much too thick to manage except with a knife and fork, an interesting, but hardly traditional way to serve a Swiss Fondue. If Mr. Fetridge would like to confirm the authenticity of Mrs. Perkins’s fondue, what better authority could he find than the Switzerland Cheese Association?

Switzerland Cheese Association

2 cloves garlic

2 cups Neuchatel wine

1 lb. Switzerland Swiss Cheese, shredded

3 tablespoons flour salt, pepper, and nutmeg

3 tablespoons kirsch

Fannie Farmer

a clove of garlic, split

3/4 cup dry white wine or vermouth

1 lb. well-aged Swiss cheese, diced salt, pepper, and nutmeg

Like the fondue, the question about Miss Farmer’s or Mrs. Perkins’s version of Lobster à l’Américaine is not whether it is “classic” or not, but whether it is Lobster à l’Américaine at all. Waverly Root in The Food of France (Alfred Knopf, New York, 1958) Escoffier in Ma Cuisine (Ernest Flammarion, Paris, 1934), Larousse Gastronomique, and others, all make it quite clear that Lobster à l’Américaine is never made with sherry.

In fact, sherry is very seldom used in good French cooking at all. At its glorious best Lobster à l’Américaine is cooked with dry white wine, fresh tomatoes, and other refinements omitted from the Boston Cooking school version. As for the tomato sauce versus the tomato paste, Mr. Fetridge has evidently misunderstood Miss Farmer’s original recipe. He has described her 2 tablespoons of tomato sauce (a sample tomato pure) as a brown stock-based sauce which was the classic sauce espagnole (it does indeed take eight hours to make) and is never used in a Lobster à l’Américaine. In any circumstance, one can hardly imagine Miss Farmer’s thrifty New England conscience tolerating for one moment the notion of devoting eight hours to the preparation of 2 tablespoons of tomato sauce.

As far as the timings and temperatures for roast chicken are concerned, Mr. Fetridge and Mrs. Perkins evidently don’t know Miss Farmer’s book as well as they think they do. They will find on page 219 of the Bantam Reference Library edition of their book a recipe for Herbed Roast Chicken with exact temperatures and timings for overcooking it.

  • Email
  • Print