Fannie Farmer: A New England Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Dinner, turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoesThanksgiving has arrived and we have become obsessed on how to succeed in the kitchen. For the past few weeks we have been treated to a flurry of magazines, cooking shows, podcasts, and social media posts about menus, recipes, vintage side dishes, ways to cook turkey, whether to brine or not and other directions.

I decided to consult an old-fashioned expert on what a New England Thanksgiving dinner should consist of.

Consulting Fannie Farmer

Fannie Farmer, Boston Cooking-School CookbookI inherited my mother’s edition of “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book” by Fannie Merritt Farmer. This is the book commonly known as “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” and Mom’s volume,while well-worn, is by no means a first edition.

That volume was published in 1896 with eight subsequent printings before the 1918 version on my bookshelf. No printing company is credited. The book is brown all over and the pages are delicate.

Ms. Farmer’s voice comes through very strongly, though, and she had a very firm opinion on what to include on a Thanksgiving dinner menu. Just reading it made me tired. I couldn’t imagine producing all these dishes—or eating them, either.

Fannie Farmer’s Thanksgiving Menu

Without further ado, here is what Fannie Farmer recommends that we serve on Thanksgiving. (Asterisks indicate that the recipe is included)

Appetizers:

  • Oyster soup*
  • Crisp crackers
  • Celery
  • Salted almonds

Entrée:

  • Roast stuffed turkey*
  • Mashed potatoes*
  • Giblet gravy
  • Onions in cream*
  • Cranberry jelly*
  • Turnips*
  • Chicken pie*

Dessert:

  • Thanksgiving dinner, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, applie pieThanksgiving pudding*
  • Sterling sauce*
  • Mince, apple, and squash pies*
  • Vanilla ice cream*
  • Fancy cakes
  • Fruit
  • Nuts and raisins
  • Bonbons*
  • Crackers
  • Cheese
  • Café noir*

A Lot of Food

I’m ready to burst just reading it. Roast turkey and chicken pie? Three dessert pies? Fancy cakes and bonbons? Even given 19th-century appetites, that’s a lot of food.It would take a restaurant-size kitchen to produce it and a table fit for the White House dining room to hold it all. I would be groaning, even if the table wasn’t.

Fannie Farmer, Boston Cooking School Student

Fannie Farmer (L) with Boston Cooking School student

Then I looked at the recipes. The oyster soup calls for a quart of oysters. Granted, these bivalves were cheaper and more common back then than they are now. Ms. Farmer gives recipes for three different kinds of stuffing; take your pick. The chicken pie recipe starts with two chickens.

I had never heard of Thanksgiving Pudding so I looked up the two recipes she includes One has suet and the other has crackers. Sterling Sauce combines butter, brown sugar, vanilla, wine, and cream.

Ordinary Cooking

The thing that struck me about all these recipes is how simple they are. The ingredients, if copious, are ordinary. By comparison, I looked at “The Perfect Thanksgiving” issue of Bon Appetit.  Here’s how the publication describes this section:

“We asked our food editors to test and retest the Thanksgiving classics: to compare Idaho potatoes to German Butterballs, to weight the merits of roast whole birds against cooking in parts. And we asked them to do it while filming Making Perfect, a six-part video series documenting every success and setback.”

“We asked our food editors to test and retest the Thanksgiving classics: to compare Idaho potatoes to German Butterballs, to weight the merits of roast whole birds against cooking in parts. And we asked them to do it while filming Making Perfect, a six-part video series documenting every success and setback.”

Phew! That’s some serious work.

A Few Ingredients

Bon Appetit, The Perfect Thanksgiving, November 2019Fannie Farmer’s cranberry jelly has three ingredients (cranberries, water and sugar) and three steps to a finished product. The Bon Appetit recipe has nine ingredients and six steps. Bon Appetit recommends roasting your potatoes before you mash them, then adding both bread and potato chips before serving for an extra dose of fat and carbs.

In all of her Thanksgiving meal, Ms. Farmer does not use beurre manié, date molasses, shallots, hot-smoked Spanish paprika, jalapeño peppers, or shiitake mushrooms. There’s not a grain of harissa to be seen.

Fannie Farmer Kept It Simple

So, before you drive yourself crazy, trying to find ingredients your local supermarket has never heard of, create complex dishes with multiple unnecessary steps, use every pot, bowl and pan in the house, and create a perfect meal worthy of the Bon Appetit video, remember this: Fannie Merritt Farmer, author of an iconic cookbook, kept it simple.

For those who like to cook, Fannie Farmer was the mother of us all. She may have produced enough food for an army but she did it all with common ingredients and by keeping the kitchen work to a minimum. After all, no one at the table cares if your meal is perfect.

Now, enjoy your guests and your dinner. Then get the men off the couch and into the kitchen to clean up. You cooked for hours; it’s only fair.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

NOTE: Fannie Merritt Farmer’s Boston Cooking School was located at 30 Huntington Avenue, Boston. That location is now the entrance to the parking garage for the Westin Copley Place Hotel. I have driven past it many times without knowing the history.

This entry was posted in Food and Cooking, Friends and Family, Women Challenging Change and tagged , , , , , , by Aline Kaplan. Bookmark the permalink.

About Aline Kaplan

Aline Kaplan is a published author, a blogger, and a tour guide in Boston. She formerly had a career as a high-tech marketing and communications director. Aline writes and edits The Next Phase Blog, a social commentary blog that appears multiple times a week at aknextphase.com. She has published over 1,000 posts on a variety of subjects, from Boston history to science fiction movies, astronomical events to art museums. Under the name Aline Boucher Kaplan, she has had two science fiction novels (Khyren and World Spirits) published by Baen Books. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies published in the United States, Ireland, and Australia. Aline’s articles have also appeared on the Atlas Obscura website. She has been an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America since 1988 and is a long-term member of the Spacecrafts science/fantasy writers’ group. As a tour guide, Aline leads architectural and historical walking tours of the city for Boston By Foot, ghost tours for Haunted Boston and historical bus tours of the city. She lectures on Boston history and has appeared in the Boston Globe, as well as on TV for Chronicle, an award-winning television program that broadcasts stories of New England. As a lecturer, Aline has spoken at Brandeis and Tufts universities for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She has also addressed as service organizations and local meetings. She is a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston and lives in Hudson, MA.

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