Picture Book Herstories of Great American Women Cookbook Writers

Count on  Deborah Hopkinson, a distinguished author of children’s non-fiction, to take on the challenge of introducing two giants of American culinary herstory in picture book biographies.  Her subjects are Amelia Simmons, whose American Cookery (1796) was the first of its kind and Fanny Merritt Farmer (1857-1912), author of the best-selling Boston Cooking School Cookbook  (1896), which in various incarnations  reached a 13th edition in 1990.  Not having led adventurous lives, painted innovative artwork, made major advances in science, or written famous fictions, the two women had to be largely reinvented to be worthy of remembrance.

Fannie Merritt Farmer (1857-1915), the first to write recipes with precise quantities measured in standardized equipment in the Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896), was a product of the domestic science movement.  She came from a well-educated Boston Unitarian family and was expected to attend college.  Those plans were upended by a paralytic stroke (or polio) she suffered at age sixteen.   She regained enough strength in her twenties to learn cooking and operate a boarding house known for its bill of fare out of her mother’s home.  Although mostly confined to a wheelchair by thirty, she still pursued a busy and successful career teaching, administering the Boston Cooking School, founding her own school, and improving nutrition and care of invalids.

Fanny in the Kitchen could have been the inspirational story of a physically challenged female icon, but Hopkinson chose instead to dream up a story revolving around the daughter of Mrs. Charles Shaw, Fannie’s employer of  who recommended she attend the Boston Cooking School. Fannie cooks like an angel, much to the dismay of Marcia Shaw, who feels she has been displaced as her pregnant mother’s helper.  Fannie, as realized by illustrator Nancy Carpenter, has the briskly efficient no-nonsense air (and turned-up nose) of Mary Poppins.  She is kind and attentive enough to see that Marcia likes being in the kitchen and wants to learn.  Marcia’s lessons give her the idea of writing everything down to make it easier to retain the art and science of cookery.  Her pupil’s mastery of cake baking coincides with her departure for new horizons.Almost no biographical information survives about Amelia Simmons beyond a few tidbits in the cookbook.  Hopkinson’s solution?  Admit up front that she’sl Inventing a credible backstory for the “American orphan” that is  a “revolutionary confection.”   It goes like this: her father perished in the war of independence and her mother died shortly thereafter of smallpox, leaving their daughter poor and friendly. The wives of the town elders decide that rather than making the municipality responsible for her maintenance, a family will take her in as a “bound girl,” presented by Hopkinson as a kind of mother’s helper rather than a contractual form of slavery.   Stalwart  Amelia walks into the Beans’ chaotic home, where two of the six boys take bites out of apples and toss them aside like colonial Ramona Quimbys.   Without missing a beat, she takes over household management from their overwhelmed mother.

This is a cheerier and more palatable take on Miss Simmons’ slightly sour explanation of her qualifications for writing American Cookery.  Being “reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics,” she possesses “the more general and universal knowledge” a female needs to be of service to her employer, the “Lady of fashion and fortune.”  Simmons’ advice that an orphan in service must maintain a character for strict virtue, coded language for the unpleasant reality that she will have no protectors to forestall the unwanted advances of the master or his son is given a pass by Hopkinson,

She does, however, assume that Amelia Simmons intended to rise above her gallingly low social position.   Having learned to read by helping one of the little Beans with his letters,  when asked by Mrs. Bean how she might assist her,  Amelia replies that she wants to master the art of American cooking so she can share it with her fellow citizens.  But first she has to build upon a foundation upon English recipes, then advance to variations using American ingredients like winter squash, molasses, and corn meal, testing them on the hungry Bean family.   A successful afternoon tea where the town ladies sample Amelia’s divine cakes and strawberry preserve, leads to an invitation to bake a cake as a gift for display on the occasion of George Washington’s inauguration.  That “plucky patriot” Amelia outdoes herself by producing thirteen cakes, one for each of the new states, lavishly decorated with gilt.  Our first president pronounces his slice “Delicious.”

Of course, there is not a word of truth in this pretty tale of the new nation.  There is nothing distinctively American about Amelia’s independence cake, whose recipe is very close to almost any English recipe for  a yeast-raised great cake, with its huge quantities of flour, butter, eggs, brandy and “plumbs”—raisins, currants, and citron.  If Hopkinson had slipped in more nuggets from American Cookery—Amelia’s praise of shad, her suggestion that raising rabbits was a sure money-maker, her distaste for garlic, her recipes for what looks like a good old pot pie, a Christmas butter cookie flavored with ground coriander seed, or candying watermelon rind as a substitute for citron—there wouldn’t have been much of a story, however mouthwatering such details might be to the adult reader with a fine palate.

At times these two picture book biographies seem to be turning back the clock, even though there is never even a whisper of a suggestion that homemaking is the only path for girls– or ought to be. They do, I think, suggest to young readers that the kitchen was a site of empowerment for women in previous centuries and that ought to be remembered and honored as such, even if producing light, delicate biscuits will never be in one’s skill set.  This model of female advancement has not yet outlived its usefulness, but rather morphed in surprising ways in the twenty-first century.  Last week the New York Times Food Section ran an article about Arab women, their careers outside the home stymied, who have found an alternative calling demonstrating home cooking on YouTube food channels.  Pleased and surprised to win millions of subscribers and earn respectable incomes, they find great satisfaction teaching others the secrets of  making delicious food.

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