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Boston’s culinary past inspires the New Boston Cooking School

“What you’re going to learn in our class today is why recipes work.’’

That’s what Rose Gill, Consulting Project Manager from America’s Test Kitchen told her first class for The New Boston Cooking School at the Boston Public Market.

The school, created under a new partnership between America’s Test Kitchen and The Boston Globe, will use the class series to figure out how people learn and respond to different methods of cooking teachings.

Christopher Kimball of America’s Test Kitchen sees the ultimate goal of the school—to improve the lives of people in Boston by getting them into the kitchen quickly, successfully, and at a low cost—as synonomous with the television show and magazine’s mission to develop understandable recipes for all.

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“We can teach our readers to cook, but we don’t know what we don’t know. Do our students have a chef knife at home? Do they know how to sharpen it to make cutting vegetables easier? Or will they cook differently?’’ Kimball said. “We need to get to the very basics to see what they do have in cookware, and then learn how we teach from there.’’

Classes started on August 19, but the school’s culinary mission is not new to the city.

Boston had its own world-renowned cooking school from 1879 to the 1950s housed at 158½ Tremont Street. The original Boston Cooking School strived to be a place for people of all incomes to learn about food and nutrition.

“The mission is not only to show the poor how to comfort their families with wholesome and economical food, but to begin a moral reform, believing that there is more potent preaching in the thought of the aroma of a cup of good coffee, juicy, nourishing meats and light, home-made bread that shall call the laborer home to share the delights of a neat, attractive table with his family than can reach him in any other manner,’’ the Boston Globe wrote in 1894.

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1894 Boston Globe article

Woman’s Educational Association member Sarah E. Hooper first proposed the school after spending time at the London’s National School of Cookery.

She persuaded the Association to authorize $100 to launch The Boston Cooking School. It was intended “to offer instruction in cooking to those who wished to earn their livelihood as cooks, or who would make practical use of such information in their families,’’ according to a 1910 article in Good Housekeeping.

The school taught 150 students in its first 12 weeks.

“We had one pupil the first day, and when those in authority requested me to teach her to make molasses gingerbread, and to use eggs instead of soda, I found to surprise myself that I dared to assert myself and claim that I had never found that eggs would neutralize the acidity in molasses, and I insisted upon having the soda,’’ Lincoln said in the 1894 feature.

Tuition was purposefully kept low: $1.50 for six basic cooking lessons. To cater to upper class women—or more accurately, to their cooks—they also offered lectures and demonstrations “of more advanced cookery’’ on alternate Saturdays.

The school joined forces with the Industrial Aid Society to offer free cooking classes in Boston’s primarily-immigrant North End in 1880 during a time Kimball described as a national movement towards health and nutrition. Special courses on nutrition were organized for students at the Harvard Medical School: Classes on “sick-room cookery’’ were offered to nurses from several hospitals in Boston. The school even offered special lectures on anatomy and digestion.

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One of the school’s most noteworthy lectures was given by Ellen Richards, the first woman to earn a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the first woman in America to earn a degree in chemistry.

But the school didn’t just host important women in history for their lectures. It bred women leaders as well.

Mary Lincoln was the school’s first principal. She researched and wrote Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book: What to Do and What Not to Do in Cooking, published in 1884. A future star pupil would expand upon her teacher’s findings, making the Boston Cooking School one of the most successful cooking schools in America.

Fannie Farmer

Fannie Farmer was born in 1857, and raised near Boston. Farmer attended Medford High School until a paralytic stroke kept her home for years with a permanent limp. It wasn’t until she was in her early 30s that Farmer attended the Boston Cooking School. She would later become its most famous principal.

In 1896, Farmer published The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, which changed the way Americans prepared food by advocating the use of standardized measurements in recipes. The cookbook contained over 1,800 recipes, along with information on cooking and sanitation techniques, household management, and even nutrition.

In Farmer’s 1896 preface, she wrote, “It is my wish that it may not only be looked upon as a compilation of tried and tested recipes, but that it may awaken an interest through its condensed scientific knowledge which will lead to deeper thought and broader study of what to eat.’’

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Farmer left the Boston Cooking School in 1902, and subsequently opened Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery. Upon Farmer’s departure, the Boston Cooking School became part of Simmons College, until it closed its Home Economics school in the 1950s. Though both schools eventually closed, Farmer’s legacy lives on as her cookbook is still in print today.

Kimball never forgot how the Boston Cooking School and Farmer changed the culinary world. He wrote a book about Farmer called Fannie’s Last Supper, and recreated a 12-course dinner from her cookbook all prepared on a coal cookstove using Victorian culinary methods, in 2009.

The coal stove from the Fannie Farmer dinner in 2009.

After researching Farmer and recreating the meal, Kimball was inspired to bring back the mission of the school that once led in culinary education. He said the long term goal is to develop a curriculum that could be used in public schools, and to build a brick and mortar location in Boston.

“First, we want to figure out how to teach people how to cook, and that isn’t something that will happen in a few months. It will take time,’’ Kimball said.

For now, Gill said they are focused on creating a comfortable atmosphere for students of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels.

“Everyone needs to learn technique, whether on a restricted budget, with health restrictions, or on a limitless budget,’’ Gill said.

Gallery: Boston Public Market Opening

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