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.

Banned Books:  Lawrence Schimel’s Rainbow Family Stories Illustrated by Elina Braslina

A collage of covers for Schimel’s Rainbow Family Books in a variety of languages.

Last summer, two children’s books ran into trouble with authorities in Hungary and Russia because they featured families headed by same-sex parents.  At first, I assumed the books originated in the old Eastern bloc and anticipated a bit of a wild goose chase finding copies for Cotsen.

A little detective work on the web revealed that copies in English translation (the texts were originally written in Spanish) would become available September 2021 from Amazon acting as distributor for Sphere, the Russian charitable foundation and co-publisher with the Russian LGBT Network.  According to the Amazon listing, a very limited number would be given away, which was puzzling.   The description didn’t specify if customers would the Russian edition, whose sale was prohibited by the country’s gay propaganda law–or something else.  Amazon charged for the books when the order was placed and gave a firm shipping date in September.

Two weeks ahead of schedule, the books were left on the doorstep.  They turned out to be a North American imprint issued by Orca, an independently owned Canadian book publisher that champions Canadian authors and its indigenous peoples, promotes diversity, and prints in Canada on Forest Stewardship Certified paper. Three other English-language editions have been issued in different parts of the world: by Peniarth in the United Kingdom and Wales; by Oratia in New Zealand and Australia; and New Africa Books in South Africa.

Both books feature a rainbow family or a gay or lesbian couple with children: the little boy has two mommies, and the girl two daddies.  The unstated point is that these families are ordinary and easy for any child to relate to.  Early One Morning is narrated by a little boy, who describes how he and the big marmalade cat get themselves some breakfast without making a mess while the rest of the family sleeps in.  The little boy proudly tells his sleepy parents and sister about this small but mighty step towards independence. Bedtime, Not Playtime tells about the fun the family had one night when the bedtime routine was disrupted.   When the dog steals the girl narrator’s stuffed bear and won’t let it go, daddies and daughter have to chase him all through the house to rescue the toy.  Once the mission has been accomplished, the romp suddenly ends when daddies and dog fall asleep, leaving the little girl wide awake with her teddy.  There’s nothing to be done except for them to quietly count sheep in bed.

I had incorrectly assumed that these books had been self-published by amateur authors and likely to have relatively low production standards.  Not only were the books attractive, they were superb examples of storytelling in a genre that lends itself to the visual teaching concrete information rather than narrative.  A board book’s format places significant limitations on its creators beyond the situation where a member of the intended cannot yet read and needs a literate mediator. Whatever a board book’s contents, the competent reader will resort to improvising on the text in order to point out to the listening child connections between their circumstances and those in the book..

After seeing the books, I wanted to know more about the circumstances of their creation and publication by award-winning author Lawrence Schimel, a distinguished literary translator, writer, and anthologist bilingual in Spanish and English.  His poetry, science fiction, and children’s books often deal with LGBT and with Jewish themes.  Schimel’s board books attempt to connect  not only with “ kids who might be in same-sex families or discovering their own LGBT identity, but for all kids to see these families that exist in the world…and to prevent a generation from growing up brainwashed by this political homophobia.”   According to Schimel, the books have now been published in 37 languages in 46 editions.

To attempt this much in a really elementary reading text is testimony to the combined talents of Schindler and his gifted Latvian collaborator, illustrator Elina Braslina.  Her chunky, colorful, two-dimensional  figures are very nicely differentiated.  Daddy number one daddy is white, bald and heavyset, while daddy number two is of color and wears glasses. They both have beards and look like nice guys.  Mischief radiates from the big round eyes of the great big orange cat and the black and white terrier.  Refreshingly, the kids are just kids who are alert, happy, secure, and loved.  In less skillful hands, the joyfulness of the stories could have been overwhelmed by good intentions. Schimel and Braslina humorously present special occasions many parents and children share every day.. Being overexcited and trying to quiet yourself down when you are the only one awake.  Trying to respond to a wideawake toddler before you’ve had your coffee. Portraying moments like these may not change the world, but their power shouldn’t be discounted either.Thanks to Lawrence Schimel, who contacted me and provided additional information that has been incorporated into the post.