IF you want to learn more about the history of food, first ask your grandmother. Then consult Fannie Farmer. Her cookbook, that is.
Many folks will be doing the same thing this year, the 100th anniversary of Fannie Merritt Farmer's "Boston Cooking-School Cook Book." It has endured 13 editions as a favorite culinary bible for generations of home cooks who wouldn't think of making beef stew or fig pudding without it.
But even more than a collection of honest, homey recipes, the cookbook in its various reincarnations speaks volumes about the evolution of American cooking amid changing times. Many chefs and social historians regard it as one of the most important cookbooks ever written. A facsimile of the original was re-released this year in honor of the 100th anniversary.
Chef and cookbook author Jacques Pepin comments: " 'The Original Boston Cooking-School Cook Book' is important both historically and from a culinary perspective, and the wonderful part of it is that it is as useful today as it was 100 years ago."
New England-based chef Jasper White is also among those who treasure the Fannie Farmer Cookbook - especially the soiled 1924 edition he inherited from his grandmother. It sparked his fondness for Fannie, and he has snapped up numerous editions of her cookbook ever since.
Recently named executive chef of Legal Sea Foods restaurants in Boston and Washington, Mr. White isn't above turning to Fannie Farmer for inspiration.
He especially admires her respect for the growing season and for using local ingredients - something he sees lacking today. "There's no seasonality anymore. We even get summer vegetables in winter," he laments. By contrast, he points out, she writes about such processes as drying celery for winter soup stocks.
White savors Miss Farmer's cookbook less as a literal guide ("one to three hours for cooking green beans!" he exclaims, referring to one of her original recipes) than as an important historical document.
"Its many revisions tell the story of the American kitchen," he said in an interview.
Fannie Farmer was born in Boston in 1857. She learned to cook the way many people do - alongside her mom. She also attended the Boston Cooking School, where she later became principal. And she lectured about food all over the United States.
Dubbed the "mother of level measurements," she is perhaps best known for introducing standardized measuring cups and spoons to American kitchens. In those days of pinches of this and handfuls of that, such precision seemed radical.
Farmer's cookbook was an immediate success. Its recipes were clear and simple. They stressed principles of cooking and nutrition - an untapped topic in her day. Her fascination with the chemistry of food shows up in discussions of water, salts, starches, sugars, fats, and oils.
In her original book, handwritten corrections that appear on a few recipes give Farmer a realness, as though the instructions were passed along from a neighbor next door.
Not surprisingly, one of the most striking differences between the first edition and the 1990 edition is the convenience factor. The original book includes steps for cooking in a coal-fired oven, and the modern edition - revised by chef and food writer Marion Cunningham - instructs cooks about microwave meals.
While such revisions have kept the book up-to-date, one can't help but imagine how Farmer might squirm to know it now includes a recipe for microwave-made applesauce. Not to mention her reaction to the slew of "quick and easy" cookbooks churned out today.
But Ms. Cunningham's remarks in the preface would no doubt please Farmer: "Today, more than ever, I sense a hankering for home cooking," Cunningham writes. "With our busy, complicated, high-tech lives, there seems to be a yearning to be in closer touch with a simpler, more natural world."
Cunningham carefully adapted the all-American classic for the '90s. She writes that she "eliminated some old recipes that seemed a bit stodgy for today's tastes." She also added chapters not only on microwaving, but also on outdoor grilling and vegetarianism. She introduced hundreds of ethnic dishes, and she reduced the amount of fat called for in some recipes.
Like her predecessor, Cunningham maintains a healthy attitude: "I believe that the best possible approach for the average person is to eat a wide variety of foods and to eat sensibly, in moderation. That is what the Fannie Farmer for the '90s is all about."
These recipes are from "The Original Boston Cooking-School Cook Book 1896," by Fannie Merritt Farmer (a facsimile of the first edition of "The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book"), Hugh Lauter Levin Associates.
Boston Brown Bread
1 cup rye-meal
1 cup granulated corn-meal
1 cup Graham flour
2 cups sour milk, or 1-3/4 cups sweet milk or water
3/4 tablespoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup molasses
Mix and sift dry ingredients, add molasses and milk, stir until well mixed, turn into a well-buttered mould, and steam three and one-half hours. The cover should be buttered before being placed on mould, and then tied down with string; otherwise the bread in rising might force off cover. Mould should never be filled more than two-thirds full. A melon-mould or one-pound baking powder boxes make the most attractive-shaped loaves, but a five-pound lard pail answers the purpose. For steaming, place mould on a trivet in kettle containing boiling water, allowing water to come half-way up around mould, cover closely, and steam, adding, as needed, more boiling water.
1 quart clams
4 cups potatoes cut in 3/4 inch dice
1-1/2 inch cube fat salt pork
1 sliced onion
1 tablespoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
4 tablespoons butter
4 cups scalded milk
8 common crackers
Clean and pick over clams, using one cup cold water; drain, reserve liquor, heat to boiling point, and strain. Chop finely hard part of clams; cut pork in small pieces and try out; add onion, fry five minutes, and strain into a stewpan. Parboil potatoes five minutes in boiling water to cover; drain and put a layer in bottom of stewpan, add chopped clams, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and dredge generously with flour; add remaining potatoes, again sprinkle with salt and pepper, dredge with flour, and add two and one-half cups boiling water. Cook ten minutes, add milk, soft part of clams, and butter; boil three minutes, and add crackers split and soaked in enough cold milk to moisten. Reheat clam water to boiling point, and thicken with one tablespoon butter and flour cooked together. Add to chowder just before serving. The clam water has a tendency to cause the milk to separate, hence it is added at the last.