Monday, May 23, 2011

Fannie Farmer Fairy, OR The Tale of Two Grandmothers

Oh Marion, It was just to much, I know that now.  I have had my Grammy’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook since my mom sent it to me that first broke-ass Navy Wife Winter in Virginia. It arrived in a box full of persimmons from Grandma’s tree in California and a pretty white dish towel. Mom inscribed the book: “Laura--Think your Grammy would get a kick out of knowing you were using her ‘Bible. Love, S ”.  If you are playing at home, this is Mom-ly Thing #34 being Officially Credited to her account.
To explain, that’s Marion Cunningham, keeper of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook flame. Patron Saint #4 of American Cooking Tradition and Lore. It’s a hell of a burden to bear-- the 1979 COMPLETELY REVISED! Edition, has a forward by James *Sainted* Beard hisownself.  She was his Kitchen Jedi, they traveled the country teaching. His mother knew Fannie, who was the very first American Culinary Yoda.  Dem’s some chops right there. The damned things go for more used in shops than the new ones on Amazon. 
I snapped this thing up in an antique shop two weeks ago for $18 because it was really worth it to me.  I wanted this book, and the newer edition as well, which my Jedi Jasmin snatched from under me at Book Buyers in Mountain View one bitterly cold evening after she filled me with Indian food at Sakoon, then gelatto, to slow me down.  What I neglected was reality.  My 1924 edition, containing advertisements in the back for things like andirons at Macy’s, contained the sort of recipe format considered new-wave and forward thinking:
ingredient ingredient
ingredient ingredient
ingredient ingredient
Instructions containing brief beginning-to-end-steps.
Even on the verge of the new-fangled 80’s, you clung fast to two pages of Brains, two pages of Sweetbreads and an entire Shad and Smelts section in the Fish chapter.  I admire you deeply for that.  But the format never changed and there is so much missing--in every recipe, in every section-- background information, the basic science and knowledge of techniques. I love you like my own Grandmothers, but Marion and Fannie, there’s a reason I’m the Joy of Cooking Fairy.  
With every edition JoC gets stronger, smarter, savvier. In that past life as a young navy wife, alone in a tiny unfurnished apartment 3000 miles away from my family for the first time, I had Fannie and Joy.  Fannie was history.  Joy was my then-husband’s grandmother, Daisy’s weapon of choice.  Family legend had it that as a young mother of seven in rural Ohio, they had a farm, but her husband also worked the steel mill.  During a particularly vicious snowstorm, the men were stuck near town at the mill, but Daisy was stuck with seven kids and a freshly killed cow in the barn that needed prompt butchering.  Daisy took her Joy Of Cooking, presented on her wedding day by her own grandmother, her sharpest knife and headed out back.  She opened JoC to the Map of the Cow and went to town  on that sucker.  Husband returned home to wrapped, frozen meat and a wife with a now-knowing glint in her eye.  She was the only one in that family I missed.
The Joy now begins with info on Nutrition, Meal Planning, Home Economics and Entertaining.  Food sections start you off with a brief introduction to the traditions, history and science of what you’re making, and what you’re going to need to know about techniques, ingredients and variations.  For example, what would normally be the treacherous subject of Savoury Sauces, Salad Dressings, Marinades and Rubs explains basic tenants of sauce components  and creation, uses and tools. It then launches into details about the various liquids and starch thickeners for sauces and why/when you should use them.  Thus, you are educated, and therefore confident, in how to make a no-lump sauce or gravy.  The back sections contain Know Your Ingredients--with illustrations of herbs, vegetables and such, Cooking Methods and Techniques, and a comprehensive Index.  This beauty has it all.
Fannie reserves a few conversion tables and helpful substitution lists for the inside covers, has an oddly conceived alphabetical reference in the beginning and leaves it at that.  It is, however, a wonderful, heartwarming repository of American heritage cooking.  I will never forget reading through it like a novel, tucked into a bed so far from home all those years ago.  

The ’24 edition contains charming notes on wondrous new flavour extracts and convenience products, and an odd Table of Measures and Weights the terms of which made sense Long, Long Ago in a Kitchen Far, Far Away.   As I slept, it lay on the pillow beside me next to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s West From Home, the letters she wrote her husband of her trip here to San Francisco for the 1915 World’s Fair.  She was visiting her daughter, Rose, a journalist, and I was captivated by the scope of this other Laura’s life.  At the beginning of my life, I met her when she was a slightly stroppy, tempestuous little girl (no similarity) in a red dress (none at all alike), who lived in a log cabin.  I have a wicked cool Librarian cousin with this as a tattoo: 


Her father soon decided to move on to the new territories opened up after the Civil War.  She spent the rest of her childhood in covered wagons and frontier towns.  There were dust storms, fire storms, locusts and one terrifying starving winter.  Then she married and had Rose, who became as irrepressible and sparkling as she.  On that trip she saw the same Palace of Fine Arts that I can drive 40 minutes due north on Highway 280 to San Francisco, stop, park and touch the columns of.  


She described the glorious nighttime electric lights illuminating the entire city so recently resurrected from the ashes of the Great Quake. From the literal back woods where her father shot bears and made everything including bullets by hand she witnessed Jazz, World War I, planes, trains and automobiles.
Fannie’s first edition was 1896, when Laura (and Daisy’s grandmother) were 20.  These women were extraordinary, strong and grounded.  But they ate some strange stuff and carried a LOT in their heads that never made it to the page, which was a big problem when I was 24, 100 years later.
So Marion, Fannie needs a new voice!  We need you to condense a little less, and explain a whole lot more.  Illustrate, chart those unknown waters with a little more than There Be Pastry Explained In Two Sentences On the Inside Cover!  But thank you for keeping the Stove of History hot, and the Legend of Sweetbreads, alive.  I’m off with to find me a Thymus and some capers...
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