If you’ve ever baked a cake or made cookies and been successful, you have Fannie Farmer to thank. The founder of Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery in Boston, opened in 1902, instructed her students to use the same precise amounts of ingredients in every recipe, not rounded spoons and cups. Fannie Farmer became known as the “Mother of Level Measurements.”
You may not even know how many layers of cooks there were between you and the original recipe, or the history of that food. There are ways we cook today that might have come from watching whoever was cooking in your childhood kitchen, or maybe you got a pro’s tip from a favorite cookbook or took a course or watched a video or read an article somewhere. And you made the recipe you learned with great pride.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we turned to some of the women, sadly all gone now, who made important contributions to today’s cooks. You will recognize some names and wonder who others were. Some achieved national or international recognition, others had a small but devoted following. All of these women (and there are many more than this short list) left their mark somewhere in the vast repertoire of dishes we have access to today.
Myrtle Allen (1924-2018)
The former proprietor of Ballymaloe House in County Cork, Ireland, Myrtle Allen introduced elegant farm-to-table fare at her country restaurant in a renovated manor home when the concept was barely understood. Her husband, Ivan, was a farmer who grew her produce, and she had access to local fishermen’s catch. She thought Irish ingredients were some of the best in the world; the problem was that cooks didn’t have the skill to use them. She earned a Michelin star. Allen also ran the Paris bistro La Ferme Irlandaise. Neighboring Ballymaloe Cookery School is run by Myrtle’s daughter-in-law, Darina Allen.
Flo Braker (1939-2017)
The sweetest woman in the cookbook business also devoted her life to sweets. Flo Braker remembered the name of everyone she’d ever met and answered endless questions from other bakers, no matter how much time they took to research. “The Simple Art of Perfect Baking” (1984) won her a national following and a popular column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Braker learned about confections working out of cookbooks; the generation that followed her learned to bake using hers.
Penelope Casas (1943-2013)
The first influential Spanish food authority in America was Greek-American. On her junior year abroad, Penelope Casas fell in love with Spain and the Spanish man who became her husband. She wrote “The Foods and Wines of Spain,” then “Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain.” Her daughter told The New York Times at her death, people “had no real sense of what Spanish food was. She would talk about tapas bars, and they would think she was saying ‘topless.’”
Cecilia Chiang (1920-2020)
As the story goes, Cecilia Chang, who lived in Tokyo at the time, was visiting her sister in San Francisco and lent two friends she knew from Japan a large sum to rent restaurant space. When they backed out and the landlord wouldn’t return her deposit, Chiang opened The Mandarin in 1960 and stayed in the Bay Area. Born near Shanghai to wealthy parents, Chiang and her husband left China during the Cultural Revolution. The sleek, sophisticated Mandarin didn’t offer Americanized versions of the Cantonese food customers knew, but the traditional dishes of her native country. The restaurateur taught Alice Waters and James Beard, among others. “I think I changed what average people know about Chinese food,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Leah Chase (1923-2019)
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, celebrated for its Creole food, became a gathering place for civil rights leaders, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. ”We changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo,” restaurateur Leah Chase told Louisiana Public Broadcasting in a documentary. Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Barack Obama also came to dine (”Mr. Obama,” she told the presidential candidate, “you don’t put hot sauce in my gumbo”). Chase began by helping her parents-in-law, who owned Dooky’s when it was a sandwich shop. She was married to band leader and jazz trumpeter Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed the restaurant, she rebuilt with the same white linens and African-American art collection. “No city in America has anybody comparable to Leah Chase,” Freedom Rider Rudy Lombard, who frequented her place, told LPB. At her death, @KosherSoul (Michael W. Twitty) tweeted: “She nourished The Civil Rights Revolution. She fed men & women who never came back. She got to see America from Jim Crow to it’s [sic] death to Katrina to Obama and beyond. What an awesome, incredible enviable journey afforded the absolute Queen of Creole food.”
Joyce Chen (1917-1994)
In 1958 in order to entice diners to order Chinese dumplings, Joyce Chen Restaurant in Cambridge called them Peking ravioli (Boston diners knew Italian ravioli). Along with other little known dishes, such as moo shu pork and scallion pancakes, Peking ravioli took off. Joyce Chen offered both Chinese and American menus so customers could try dishes they didn’t know beside familiar ones. Chen, raised in a wealthy Beijing family, had moved here a decade earlier with her husband, Thomas, and their children. She taught cooking, wrote books, and starred in the public television show, “Joyce Chen Cooks,” produced in the same WGBH studio where Julia Child filmed “The French Chef.” Chen also started a cookware business and patented a flat-bottom wok with a handle to make Chinese cooking easier at home.
Julia Child (1912-2004)
If you were lucky and lived near Julia Child’s Cambridge residence, you might have run into her at the Star Market, or at Savenor’s, her butcher. She was busy shopping for recipes that made her cookbooks and TV shows a huge draw to a public eager to learn classic French food ever since “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” was published in 1961. Anyone who came for dinner was expected to roll up their sleeves so her kitchen during a dinner party was hectic. Like a matchmaker, she introduced dozens of young cooks and writers to chefs and authors who became mentors. Julia, as her legions of fans in Boston and beyond called her, had brilliant comedic timing, which made her fun on and off the air.
Laurie Colwin (1944-1992)
When you read an author who writes like someone’s in the room talking to you, you can’t help but fall in love, which is what a huge audience did in the 1970s when Laurie Colwin appeared in the New Yorker, Gourmet magazine, and Mademoiselle. “Home Cooking” and “More Home Cooking” have steadily gained in popularity since Colwin’s death. She is witty and frank and fun. Once she wrote about some friends of her husband coming for dinner when they were young and she made packaged tortellini that turned crunchy and stuck to everyone’s teeth. As they were eating, she realized that the friends, who she’d never met, were stoned. “Wouldn’t it be groovy if we could dump whatever it is in the garbage and go out for dinner?” one of them asked. So they did. This story came with advice that all novices make mistakes, but usually not the same one twice.
Elizabeth David (1913-1992)
Postwar Britain wasn’t accustomed to tomatoes, lemons, olive oil, fresh apricots, and the other exotica that Elizabeth David longed for after spending the war in the south of France, then Greece, then Cairo, and coming home to empty markets and terrible food. “A Book of Mediterranean Food” (1950) gave Britons some of the lush but simple dishes she had learned and it was easy to use. Many decades later, if you made her recipes, you felt like you could cook. And if you bragged about following Elizabeth David, well, then you really had arrived. She wrote “French Country Cooking,” “Italian Food,” “Summer Cooking,” and “French Provincial Cooking,” opened a beautiful cookery shop that didn’t do well, and continued to write, including “English Bread and Yeast Cookery.” She was the writer who cheered up the British when the table was at a low point and introduced a generation to the exciting European cooking they would embrace.
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908-1992)
With the byline M.F.K. Fisher, she contributed to the New Yorker, translated Brillat-Savarin’s “The Physiology of Taste,” and wrote many volumes on food, intellectual and literary, beginning with “Serve It Forth.” Raised in Whittier, Calif., her father owned the local newspaper, so perhaps it’s no coincidence that Fisher’s essay style had a reportorial quality. She lived in France, which she wrote about extensively. Fisher is the writer to read if you want to be amused and enchanted and get a sample of what many consider to be some of the best writing on food of all time.
Jane Grigson (1928-1990)
As the long-running food columnist for the Observer Colour Magazine in London (22 years), Jane Grigson wrote about British food in a way that didn’t exactly romanticize it, but made it immensely appealing, from bloaters (kippers) with potato salad, complete with fish filleting instructions, to Mrs. Beeton’s Baked Lemon Pudding, which celebrated the famous Victorian cook. Grigson was widely traveled and lived part of the year in France’s Loire Valley, so many of her recipes were European. Her first book, “Good Things” (1971), based on her Observer columns, is still a treasure.
Maria Guarnaschelli (1941-2021)
Born in Brookline, Maria Guarnaschelli (mother of celebrity chef Alex Guarnaschelli) edited Judy Rodgers (see below), Lynne Rossetto Kasper, Rose Levy Beranbaum, and Jim Lahey. She is best-known for “The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking” (1997), an update of the 1931 book that was a fixture in many American kitchens.
Marcella Hazan (1924-2013)
“The Classic Italian Cookbook” (1973) came right at the moment when Americans were ready to make their own pasta and embrace the repertoire of regional Italian cooking. Marcella Hazan, a biologist by training, ran cooking schools in New York and Italy. Her contribution to Italian food in America was so important that her Tomato Sauce recipe, made with a halved onion and plenty of butter, ran with her New York Times obituary.
Judith Jones (1924-2017)
The Alfred Knopf editor who took “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by an unknown American, Julia Child, and her two French friends, and turned it into a publishing sensation was so shy and modest she practically spoke in a whisper. When Judith Jones was handed the unwieldy manuscript, she began cooking out of it and was enraptured, she told a Globe reporter, because she finally found formulas for classic recipes she knew. In subsequent years, Jones went on to edit cookbooks for James Beard, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, Edna Lewis, Claudia Roden, and others. Jones spent most of the warm months in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. As a young woman working in an American publishing house in Paris, she pulled an English translation of a manuscript from the reject pile and convinced her boss it was worth publishing. It was “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank. Jones had a quiet voice that might have been a roar.
Madeleine Kamman (1930-2018)
The Newton teacher and restaurateur Madeleine Kamman didn’t tolerate anything less than perfection, and demanded exacting technique and professional results from students. She trained hundreds of cooks at her Modern Gourmet school and put the best ones to work at Chez La Mere Madeleine. Her impressive book, “The Making of a Cook,” (1971) is a mini-culinary course. Kamman had a brief fling as a TV cook. Her rivalry with Julia Child was the talk of Boston. “The French cuisine Julia was doing was not my French cuisine,” she told the LA Times, “and I am French.” Born near Paris, Kamman went to work at an aunt’s restaurant. She returned to France in the 1980s to start a cooking school in Annecy, lived part of the year in Glen, N.H., and taught chefs at Beringer Vineyards in Napa Valley. “More than any other art, cooking is a complete art,” she told a Globe reporter, “one that will involve the stamina of your body and the tenderness of your heart, balanced by the intellectual capacity of your brain.”
Edna Lewis (1916-2006)
Known for her buttermilk biscuits made with lard, and Brunswick stew simmered with rabbit or squirrel, Edna Lewis cooked at Café Nicholson in New York’s East Side for famous Southerners such as Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. She was raised in Freetown, a rural Virginia community founded by emancipated slaves that included her grandfather. Her cooking knowledge came from the kitchens of the women in her family, she wrote in “The Taste of Country Cooking” (1976). Almost everything on the family table, she said, was grown on the land. In a letter to “The Jemima Code” author Toni Tipton-Martin, who met Lewis in 1985, Lewis wrote, “Every group has its own food history. Our condition was different. We were brought here against our will in the millions, enslaved, and through it all established a cuisine in the south … the only fully developed cuisine in the country.”
Dione Lucas (1909-1971)
British-born Dione Lucas ran a French restaurant and cooking school in New York. She had trained at L’Ecole du Cordon Bleu in Paris, then co-founded a branch of the famous school in London. She moved to America in 1940 and was one of the first TV chefs; her omelets were legendary. “All these omelets I make in my special pan, which has not been used for anything else in the sixteen years I have owned it,” she wrote in “The Cordon Bleu Cook Book” (1947). “Neither has it ever been washed, for water would cause the omelets to stick to the pan.” She found an abundance of good food in her adopted country and real talent, not always recognized. “It is unfortunate,” she wrote, “that more emphasis is not placed on the importance of cooking as an art.”
Sheila Lukins (1942-2009)
Sheila Lukins’s most popular dish from “The Silver Palate Cookbook” (1982), Chicken Marbella — with prunes, olives, and capers — is still made by home cooks everywhere. With her mane of curly hair and big smile, she had a Gilda Radner quality. She started as a New York caterer, opened the specialty market Silver Palate with Julee Rosso, produced the best-selling cookbook with Rosso, and wrote a food column for Parade magazine, read by millions. She cooked with sun-dried tomatoes and fresh cilantro and made her own mayonnaise. Lukins had exquisite instincts for what people wanted to cook.
Judy Rodgers (1956-2013)
She may not have started America’s love affair with roast chicken, but Judy Rodgers brought the golden bird to new heights. Wherever you sat in the celebrated Zuni Café in San Francisco, you saw waiters carrying plates of her famous chicken through the dining rooms. And it was, every time, worthy of the hype. Home cooks plowed through five pages of her precise recipe in “The Zuni Café Cookbook” to prepare it. Rodgers was raised in St. Louis and through wild good luck, was a high school exchange student in France at the home of Michelin chef Jean Troisgros. After studying at Stanford, she cooked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. “Make dishes more than once, and pay attention to the slight or substantial differences in each variable and how each affects the results, for the better or the worse,” she advised readers in the cookbook.” These insights and surprises are your reward, she said. Which is undoubtedly the reason Rodgers could make a dish a zillion times, still take some pleasure, and delight her audience.
Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor (1937-2016)
Born in South Carolina, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s family was part of the Great Migration and moved as a girl to Philadelphia. Later, she lived in Paris, then New York, always cooking the food of her childhood, and talking about it as a commentator on NPR. She was also a poet, writer, singer, dancer, costume designer, and actress, appearing in “Beloved,” a film based on the Toni Morrison book. “When I cook, I never measure or weigh anything. I cook by vibration. I can tell by the look and smell of it,” she wrote in “Vibration Cooking: or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl” (1970) about West African traditions in the South Carolina low country, artists, dinners, and recipes.