Giving my mom a cookbook for Mother's Day, Christmas, and her birthday always seemed logical to me. She loves to cook and bake, and for someone who claims to never want or need anything, cute cookbooks used to sound like a no-brainer to me — until I realized that they all ended up in the same cabinet, mostly untouched, keeping each other company.
Why? Because nothing could trump her Fannie Farmer. Full of loose pages, tiny typeface, and a near-disintegrating spine, this cookbook is her one and only.
For a little bit of background, Fannie Farmer was a Boston native (like my mother) who later became the principal of the Boston Cooking School in 1891. Her first cookbook, The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, was published in 1896. Updated editions, like my mother's, have been simply titled, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.
My Mom and Fannie
How did this 100-year-old cookbook fall into my mom's lap? After getting a college degree in home economics education, during which she started to really cook for the first time, she needed something that would take her culinary skills to the next level. She only had two actual cooking classes in college (a little light for a home ec degree, if you ask me!), and describes some of her lessons — like learning how to make a soufflé — as "non-useful and unpractical."
After graduation, she bought a copy of Fannie Farmer to fill in the blanks, especially when it came to vegetables. "I grew up eating canned and frozen vegetables ... I didn't know what a whole head of broccoli looked like, and I needed help preparing and serving the 'real thing.'" She was one of nine children, so a budget-friendly menu was the priority in her childhood home — and fresh produce didn't fit at the time.
She picked Fannie Farmer because it had good name recognition and a good reputation. She also liked that there was a candy store of the same name, sweetening the deal. (Fanny Farmer was an American candy manufacturer in the northeast, named in honor of Fannie Farmer, although the cookbook author had nothing to do with the candy stores.)
Fannie Knows Best
So, my mom learned to cook and bake with her new cookbook, trying everything from easy banana bread to the fancy-sounding coquilles St-Jacques. She got better and better, always consulting Fannie when looking for a new recipe.
Over the years, my mom developed a repertoire of weeknight dinner menus for our family, blending her basic skills with the simple flavor fixes she gleaned from Fannie's cookbook. Fannie's recipes for fish chowder, beef stew, chicken pot pie, chicken soup, and chili earned my mom's seal of approval. Whenever I would ask my mom to make something, like scones or split pea soup, she'd always check to see if Fannie had a recipe for it — most of the time, she did. My mom even learned how to put her own spin on her Fannie faves (she cleverly reinvented Fannie's chili into a zero-prep-time version by using a jar of salsa instead of dicing her own veggies).
Much like Fannie, my mother is very much a no-frills cook. If dinner can't be on the table in less than 45 minutes, she's not interested. One of her most famous desserts is a four-ingredient cheesecake. (Shockingly not a Fannie recipe, but rather the one that comes on the box of the cream cheese!) The pasta machine in our house has been used once, the effort later deemed "not worth it." She will never make homemade yellow cake or brownies, because the boxed kind is just as good and way easier. Chocolate chip cookies, on the other hand, are a totally different story. Those take little effort and should always be made from scratch and with love. (She baked me four-dozen before I left for college so I could make friends.)
My mom's favorite section of the cookbook is the pie section — as a family of dessert-lovers, this makes perfect sense. There was never a single Dorito or french fry in my childhood home, but there was always dessert. Thanks to Fannie, she makes the world's best pie crust (the vegetable shortening makes it extra flaky). She prefers Fannie's pumpkin pie recipe, "the old fashioned kind, made with evaporated milk," to the unnecessarily complicated one I tried to make last Thanksgiving.
This book has certainly earned its keep. As I grew up, my mom earned local fame through my elementary school bake sales, family gatherings, and her St. Patrick's Day Irish bread deliveries (close friends were lucky enough to wake up to a golden loaf of soda bread on their doorsteps). All because of Fannie's recipes.
In a last-ditch effort to give her another cookbook for Christmas a few years ago, I bought her an updated, hardcover version of Fannie Farmer, printed in large type. I shouldn't have been surprised that she still prefers the original.
Of course, if you wanna go the cookbook route, we've got you covered: 15 Cookbooks That Make Great Mother's Day Gifts