Ever since Julia Child’s death, food journalists, food celebrities, cookbook authors, bloggers and cultural historians have expended millions of keystrokes lionizing her. I’d say most if not all of that worshipful press is deserved. For Julia Child was a titan in the field of home cooking, having empowered millions of women — and more recently men — to attempt culinary feats once thought too difficult for the average Jane (or Joe).
Amid all these hagiographics, however, it’s important not to forget that Julia Child was but the latest in a line of innovators that have given us home cooking as we know it. That line — among English speakers anyway — stretches back to Hannah Glasse (author of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy in 1747) and can be traced through Eliza Acton (Modern Cookery for Private Families, 1845) and Isabella Beeton (Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861) to Fannie Farmer, author of the Boston Cooking-School Cookbook.
Fannie Farmer was similar to Julia Child in that she got off to a late start as a cooking celebrity. For most of her life she was essentially an invalid, having suffered a stroke in 1873 at the tender age of 16. The incident left her mostly paralyzed, and it took her some fifteen years to recover (though she never recovered fully). During that period she enrolled in the Boston Cooking School. Needless to say she excelled there, rising to the position of school principal in just four years. Five years later, in 1896, she would publish the first edition of her now legendary cookbook, which contained some 1,800 recipes.
There were hundreds of American cooks writing cookbooks around that time. But what made Fannie Farmer different was her scientific approach to the craft. Not only did she provide recipes, she provided detailed explanations of why things in the kitchen work the way they do. In other words, she was systematic about everything she did. And in fact we have her to thank for introducing standardized measurements (cups, tablespoons and teaspoons) to the home kitchen.
Fannie Farmer was what people might have referred to in her day as a domestic scientist, which meant her interests extended well beyond cooking into aspects of home life that included things like nutrition, sanitation, child development, caring for the sick and elderly, parenting and budgeting. If all that sounds like “home economics” to you, it’s because that’s the more current name for the discipline Fannie Farmer and her contemporaries invented. Prior to that, the only way a young woman learned anything about managing a home and family was from her mother. Domestic science made the proper running of a home, well, a science. As such it had a profound effect on health and living standards in this country, and helped establish women as more than mere domestic servants in American homes. The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book contained a variety of essays on domestic science, making it much more than a how-to of cookery. It was a health, homemaking and sanitation manual that brought tens of thousands of eighteenth century women into the modern age.
So yes, I’ll grant that Julia Child made significant contributions to our culture. Indeed back in 1997, U.S. New & World Report claimed on its cover that “Julia Child Invented Modern Life”. It was a delightful sentiment, one that was so well argued that it could almost be believed. For my money though, if we were going to attribute the invention of modern life to any one woman, I’d give the distinction to Fannie Farmer.