Thursday, February 29, 2024

Q&A with Emma Bland Smith




Emma Bland Smith is the author of the new children's picture book biography The Fabulous Fannie Farmer: Kitchen Scientist and America's Cook. Her other books include Mr. McCloskey's Marvelous Mallards. She lives in San Francisco.


Q: What inspired you to write a children’s picture book biography of culinary expert Fannie Farmer (1857-1915)?


A: First of all, thank you for having me back on your wonderful blog! I’m very grateful, and I’m excited to share this book about Fannie Farmer with your readers.


I have always been into food and cooking (before I started children’s book writing I worked in magazine food departments and did freelance food writing), and had been thinking for years that I’d love to write a cooking-centered picture book.


Then when my daughter was in fourth grade, she had to choose an inventor to dress up as for a school project. She picked the cookbook author and cooking teacher Fannie Farmer, and the writer part of my brain immediately pinged. I started doing research on Fannie, and it all flowed from there!


Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about her?


A: Great question! A simple one is that a lot of people probably think she wasn’t even a real person! They might assume she was an invented figurehead, like Betty Crocker. In fact, she was an inspiring, ambitious woman who accomplished a great deal despite a debilitating illness in her teens.


Another misconception is that Fannie invented standard measurements, like teaspoons and cups. Soundbite culture gave her the moniker “The Mother of Measurement”—which I must admit does roll off the tongue!


The more nuanced truth is that in the late 1800s, standard measurements already existed but weren’t widely used; what Fannie did was promote and popularize them through her influential platform.

Q: What do you think Susan Reagan’s illustrations add to the book?


A: Susan’s illustrations are everything! They are so warm and colorful that they make you want to step into the scene. But they’re also very detailed and accurate. Susan had already illustrated a number of historical picture books, and she takes her research seriously.


In this case, she had to research household items, cooking implements, food, clothing, and what Boston looked like in the late 1800s. She also makes the food look so delicious!


Q: The Literary Hub review of the book says, in part, “The accessible, cheerfully feminist text celebrates Farmer’s application of scientific principles to the process of preparing a meal, and the extensive endmatter is a great launchpad for any reader who wants to do more rigorous research of their own.” What do you think of that description?


A: I like that they mention the scientific part of Fannie’s methods. Fannie had a very practical side and embraced science; her recipes were based on accuracy and precision, trial and error. This was an era when new technologies were changing American life—stoves had temperature gauges for the first time!


Fannie also believed that cooking didn’t have to be about instinct. Not being born knowing how to cook did not make you any less of a woman; cooking was something anyone could learn from a well-written recipe.


She argued that that home cooking, not just restaurant cooking (a career that was almost exclusively masculine), was worthy of respect; that was the feminist angle in my book.


I learned so much about history writing this, and my editor, Carolyn Yoder, gave me a generous number of pages for back matter to really go into it.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a book for the educational market about the children who grew up on Alcatraz. There’s also a project about another cooking figure that I’m really excited about. This one was an African American woman living in New Orleans in the early 20th century. More to come soon!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There are two recipes in the book! I had always wanted to incorporate recipes into a children’s book, so this was a dream come true!


I chose two recipes that were in the original 1896 cookbook, but that don’t feel dated and that will still appeal to children: angel food cake and popovers. I adapted them for the book and I hope kids will give them a try!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Emma Bland Smith.

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