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.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter Imperfectly Remembered

The original jacket by Helen Sewell.

On snowy weekends, details from The Long Winter, my favorite Little House book, often pop into mind. But I haven’t reread it for years,  perhaps because I wanted to remember the story as I thought it was.  But even a razor-sharp memory doesn’t retain indelible impressions of childhood favorites forever, so the last stormy weekend, the Library of America edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder came up from the basement.

For me, the story had been all about the relationship between Charles Ingalls and his second daughter Laura, and I can still call up ghostly images of Garth Williams’ illustrations of them haying in the shimmering summer heart and twisting hay into sticks in the freezing cold.  If Laura had been Ma’s little lady and not helped Pa with the haying, then the Ingalls family probably would have perished during the great winter of 1880-1.  The tomboy daddy’s girl seemed to be the most independent woman in the Ingalls family, being freer from gender role expectations than Ma and her sisters.  I hadn’t really taken in the extent to which Laura’s rebellious thoughts stayed in her head and how quickly she backed down when her parents—usually Ma—shut down outbursts with a few quiet words.

The neat division between the work of men and women was no surprise then, but resentment about the inequality between the sexes bubbled up now in two small incidents.  Pa had the freedom (weather and work permitting) to venture into town for news and company, but the womenfolk had to stay within the four walls.  The Wilder brothers weren’t facing privation in their warm, well-provisioned feed store.  It seemed unfair, even unkind, that Royal and Manzo fed the undernourished Ingalls stacks of buckwheat cakes, molasses, and fried salt pork when he visited, but didn’t send him home with a care package for the half-starved women in the semi-dark grinding wheat berries in a coffee mill for brown bread.  Perhaps that would have been a silent rebuke to Pa for failing to provide for his family.  Manzo’s wild goose chase across the frozen prairie to find a farmer with wheat to sell who might not exist did save the community from starvation until the trains could come through.  But now I can’t be sure if he hitched up the horses motivated more by pity for his neighbors or the desire to keep his seed wheat from them…

Then there was Ma, the upright Scotswoman, who taught school before she was married.  As a girl I wasn’t capable of putting myself in her shoes, even though it was obvious how hard it must have been to juggle childcare, housework, and homeschooling in the middle of the nowheres where her husband was happiest. Rereading The Long Winter during the pandemic forced me to recognize the remarkable equanimity she showed in the face of a likely death from starvation or the cold.  Making sourdough brown bread was not a fun activity to help pass the time.   Cleverly constructing a lamp from a dish, axle grease, a little scrap of cloth, and a button gave them a little light to read by when the kerosene ran out.   Admonishing her girls to be thankful for what they had still sounded prissy, but I had to admit from my experience during Covid that there is more strength in cheerfulness than in self-pity, both for your spirits and for those around you.  What was a  temporary toilet paper shortage, compared to keeping a small house holding six people, including one toddler, habitable during seven months of blizzards.

The Long Winter remains for me an extraordinary story of one family’s survival, even though I know for other people condemn it for what Wilder did not say about the effects the push westward had on the Native Americans in its path.  They point to the scene where the old Native American man comes into Fuller’s Hardware to warn the settlers in a dialect no one ever spoke that this winter will be the worst in decades, with seven months of blizzards.  In a 2015 blog post, Debbie Reece argues that such  scenes teach Native American children to despise themselves and non-Native American readers to hate indigenous people.   I have to admit to having forgotten this scene, but I am pretty sure that I did not think as a child that it was “true,” any more than the behavior and speech of  Native American characters in Westerns was.  It may have had something to do with  my mother who used to imitated the stilted dialogue to drive home the point that the programs were too ridiculous to watch.  Not having any familiarity with Native American individuals or knowledge of their cultures, there were no better ideas to replace the clumsy, disrespectful stereotypes.  Now that scene seems more awkward because it is so obviously constructed as a plot device.   The old man’s forecast was accurate, but presented as the mysterious knowledge of primitive people, and it follows the scene where Pa explains to Laura what his careful observation of  how thick the muskrats were building the walls of their houses might mean for the winter ahead..Rereading classics, especially ones whose reputations have changed, can be as important keeping up with new books.  It risks disappointment, because there is always the chance that the memories are better than the book.  The ones that hold up to repeated rereadings force us to test our memories’ validity and if necessary revise our interpretation in light of new things noticed and new ideas about its reception.

The hay that was twisted into sticks to heat the Ingalls’ house during the Long Winter.