Spring is a time for field trips—outdoors, if possible. This is from my sketchbook, when, as part of a homeschooling Farming block one year, we visited Cunningham Falls in the Catoctin Mountains for their annual maple syrup festival. We were able to see the entire process from tree-tapping to boiling down sap to sampling the final product at a pancake breakfast. Wonderful park guides provided explanations of each step and answered our many questions. The syrup was a whole lot better than their Lake Wobegon pancakes, though. They definitely need a new recipe.
If you were an American housewife setting out to bake a cake or a loaf of bread in the 19th century—or the 18th—or the 17th—you generally relied upon what you had learned at your mother’s side. You assembled flour and milk and sugar and milk and shortening and eggs, estimating amounts as best you could and combining them from memory in the proper order. In 1303 Edward I of England had standardized the pound, and the American colonists brought with them, and still use today, the old English standards of measurement (the British have revised their system several times since then, so we no longer match), and most farm wives could measure in pounds, pecks, and bushels. But as for smaller units you were on your own with vague descriptions (“a dab of cream” “a piece of butter as large as an egg”) or whatever teacups you were fortunate enough to possess.
That is, until Fannie Farmer (1857-1915), who was born on this day in Medford, Massachusetts. Her father was an editor and printer, and her parents believed in higher education for girls, but Fannie suffered a stroke at age 16 (!), which prevented her attending college. What she could do, however, was take up responsibility for the household’s cooking. Evidently she had a natural talent. When the family home became a boarding house, it gained a reputation for its fine meals.
So Farmer was encouraged by a friend to obtain teacher training at the Boston Cooking School, which took a scientific approach to food preparation, and she did so well that she stayed on to become Assistant Principal and then Principal in 1891. And in 1896, Farmer published The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook.
Now, cookbooks were not unknown to American housewives. Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery had been self-published in 1796, with colonial favorites like pumpkin pudding, watermelon pickles, and spruce beer (Mmmm!), and by the late 19th century there was an explosion of cookbooks by women, offering medical mixtures (“A wash to prevent the hair from falling off”) and household advice (“Words of Comfort for a Discouraged Housekeeper”—now there’s one we could use) as well as recipes.
Farmer’s cookbook was even more comprehensive, including sections on the chemistry of cooking and cooking techniques, the specific components of food and why each was necessary for health, how a stove works, how flour is milled, what happens during fermentation, and extensive detailed advice on caring for the sick. In addition to these she offered recipes with straightforward, precise directions and—Ta-Daaa!—Actual Measurements, the tools for which (the standard measuring cup, divided into ounces, and graduated measuring spoons) she had created earlier. The publisher, Little, Brown, had “little” faith in the book’s success, and insisted Farmer foot the printing bill herself. When the book became hugely popular (it has sold millions of copies and has never been out of print), this turned out very well for her because she had retained copyright. Ha! Unlike poor Irma Rombauer who unfortunately sold her rights for $3,000 to Joy of Cooking’s publisher.
Farmer’s success enabled her to open her own cooking school. She wrote other books, one of them focusing on cooking for the invalid; was invited to lecture at Harvard Medical School (which lectures were widely printed and read); wrote a regular cooking column in the Woman’s Home Companion; and continued to test and invent recipes and to lecture until the last few days of her life.
You can find Fannie Farmer’s cookbook today—in its 13th edition—at your local library and bookstore. And to celebrate the birthday of the “Mother of Level Measurements,” as she was called, you can make Fannie Farmer’s “Birthday Cake.” If you own a measuring cup and spoons, that is. I have the recipe right here, and if you email me, I will send it to you. (It may be straightforward by 19th century standards but it’s waaay too long to include here.)
For years I’ve assumed that there was an etymological connection between “lentil” and Lent.” You have no idea how disappointed I am to have discovered recently that it is nonexistent. It seemed so perfectly and seasonally appropriate. Sigh. Well, more on that later. In the meantime, here is my favorite recipe for “Lent”-il soup, from Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook, modified somewhat by me:
Pick over & rinse 3 cups raw lentils. Simmer them in 7 cups water or stock (I use veggie bouillon), on the stovetop or in a crock pot, until lentils are almost tender.
Saute in olive oil 2 tsp. fresh minced garlic, 1 cup chopped onion, 1 cup minced celery, and 1 cup chopped carrots, until almost tender. Add to almost-tender lentils along with 1-1/2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes or, lacking those, fire-roasted canned tomatoes; 2 T dry red wine; 2 T lemon juice; 1-1/2 T molasses or brown sugar; 1 T wine vinegar; 1 T capers. Simmer for a while longer until lentils and veggies are tender. Add black pepper and salt to taste.
This is even better the next day, after flavors have blended.
Georgetown Cupcake often has a line out the door, but Sunday afternoon it was amazingly long, and customers were carting away cupcakes by the dozens. People were either stocking up on a supply to get them through the Oscars later that evening, or, with the approach of spring, planning to consume as many as possible while winter coats still disguise the results.
Today we celebrate two festivals: Groundhog Day, at which time we learn, as the groundhog emerges from his burrow, whether or not the end of winter is near; and Candlemas, when, in the Christian church, the infant Jesus was presented for the first time in the Temple. Each is a festival of light in a season of darkness, ever-necessary even in a world of perpetual artificial illumination. (Probably more so.)
On this day, some people make the candles they will then store and use the following winter. Others make crêpes, a lovely round golden symbol of the coming sunshine (and if you can flip your crêpe without dropping it, you will supposedly have luck in the coming year). Some spend the evening entirely by candlelight, which really makes you think about the meaning of darkness, and the legacy of Thomas Edison. And some gather around the tv screen to watch Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, and laugh and feel hopeful all over again. In our family we have done each of the above. But not all the same year. Happy February 2nd, all.
This was inspired by Deb, who last week hosted book club and decided to abandon all her tried-and-true desserts in favor of something new: an amaretto-and-apricot-glazed gâteau with fresh berries and vanilla ice cream. We were contented guinea pigs. (Deb keeps a far tidier kitchen than does Daphne.)
(Continued from yesterday) We watched the children don cloth caps, masks, and aprons, help prepare and serve the food, and then clean up: scraping scraps into the compost bucket; rinsing plates, milk bottles, and chopsticks before they went off to be washed; crumpling aluminum foil and depositing it into the recycling bin. NO TRASH. Surely the schools of our nation’s capital city could do as well.
After lunch the children and teachers put on headscarves, took up mops and brooms, and went to do the daily post-lunch school cleaning. There’s your next proposal, Councilwoman Cheh!
In a recent issue of our local DC paper, I read of an ambitious proposal by Councilwoman Mary Cheh to improve the DC school lunch program, with an emphasis on healthy local foods, recycling and composting. This reminded me of a visit to our son in Japan when he was teaching English in the local public school of a small mountain village. Our family spent a day at his school, which included sharing lunch in the cafeteria. (To be continued tomorrow.)