Marion Cunningham was a cookbook author who tirelessly championed home cooking. She served, too, as den mother of sorts to a pack of chefs, journalists, authors, restaurateurs and food purveyors who helped create the modern American food scene.
That this housewife and mother from Walnut Creek, Calif., whose woes included alcohol and agoraphobia, was able, in late middle age, to rise above her troubles, find herself and begin forging a successful food career in the 1970s was an inspiration for the many who saw her as a mentor.
“In a time when men totally dominated the business and women were considered housewives, and women’s food was strictly for the little lady in the kitchen, Marion combined the virtues of the housewife and cookbook author with a real strong American bent and a power base,” says Ruth Reichl, an author, journalist and former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. “She was totally connected to chefs, restaurateurs and other food people. She gave a kind of legitimacy to American food and the food American women cooked for their families.”
Cunningham’s heart was in the home, a theme that comes through in her cookbooks, the most famous of which was her acclaimed retooling of “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” in 1979.
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Believing, as she wrote in the introduction to “The Breakfast Book,” published in 1987, that there was no “greater inducement to conversation than sitting around a table and sharing a good meal,” Cunningham set out to show readers how, whether they were clueless adults (through her book “Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham”) or curious children (“Cooking with Children: 15 Lessons for Children, Age 7 and Up, Who Really Want to Learn to Cook”) or aspiring bakers (“The Fannie Farmer Baking Book”).
“Marion understood the confusion people felt,” says Kim Severson, author of “Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life.”
“She was teaching people to cook and carrying the flame for the home-cooked family dinner and for supermarket ingredients.”
But, unlike so many of today’s “homey” recipes, which rely too much on shortcuts and canned goods, Cunningham’s home cooking “had real construct, real value,” says Clark Wolf, president of an eponymous, New York City-based food and restaurant consultancy.
Judith Jones, the legendary Knopf editor, gave Cunningham her big break with the “Fannie Farmer” rewrite. James Beard, the so-called dean of American cooking, recommended Cunningham, who had been his student and assistant.
Beard invited Jones to read the letters he had exchanged with Cunningham on food and cooking. Jones was struck by what she read. Cunningham’s writing, she recalls, had a “nice voice,” and there was a real sense of learning in the give-and-take.
“I trusted James Beard. I saw what I trusted in those letters,” she says. “Marion’s responses and suggestions were always modestly put, but sure.”
Cunningham’s modesty and sense of fun were vividly demonstrated to Reichl on their first meeting at a party for Beard, an occasion retold in Reichl’s memoir, “Tender at the Bone.” At one point, Reichl asked if Cunningham is “an important person too.”
“Oh, no, dear,” Cunningham said. “I’m the last living home cook. I’ve just revised the twelfth edition of ‘Fannie Farmer.’ ”
You’ve got to adore a woman like that. And much of the food world did, mightily, until her death at the age of 90 in July 2012 from complications stemming from Alzheimer’s disease.
“Marion was the glue who kept the food world together,” Reichl says. “She was remarkable in her reach, and that was partly due to her personality. She was a warm, social person, and she managed to know everyone and connect everyone.”
“The biggest lesson she taught me was to follow my passion,” Reichl adds. “Look what it did for her. She decided food was the thing for her, and she followed it to an entirely new destiny.”