I first learned the sad news from one of my blog subscribers, who wrote asking had I heard? And would I be writing something about Marion Cunningham? “No, I hadn’t heard,” I responded and added “Good idea to write something about her –let me see how many of her cookbooks are on my shelves…”
I didn’t have her books shelved together with favorite authors but rather – filed according to content. I knew, for instance, that The Breakfast Book was in the garage library with other breakfast/brunch cookbooks. I knew LOST RECIPES and THE SUPPER BOOK were on a shelf in my bedroom, along with other comfort food and often thumbed-through cookbooks. All of the Fannie Farmer cookbooks in my possession are on a shelf in the garage library. Then I realized I didn’t have ALL of her books and remedied this by placing an order with Alibris.com. That being said, I find I have eight different editions of the Fannie Farmer cookbook, neither of which was #12 or #13, the two that Marion worked on. I’ve ordered one of these from Alibris.com. (Kind of reminded me of all the work I have put in, back in the day, collecting the Congressional Club cookbooks.)
Marion Cunningham passed away Wednesday, July 11, 2012, at the John Muir Medical Center in Northern California, where she had been admitted on Tuesday with respiratory problems. Family friend, John Carroll, confirmed her death. Marion had been living at an assisted-care home in Walnut Creek, the small San Francisco Bay Area city where she had raised her family. She was 90 years old. I was shocked to learn she had Alzheimer’s disease, which took my own mother’s life in September, 2000. **
Marion Enwright was born in Los Angeles on February 11, 1922, to Joseph and Maryann (Spelta) Enright. She grew up as a Southern California beach girl, tall, blonde, and elegant and graduated from high school in Los Angeles. (In her own words she admitted, “I barely made it out of high school. I never paid attention to my teachers…” That comment is debatable, considering what she produced, once she started writing. )
In one of the columns she wrote for the L.A. Times that can still be found in the Times archives, she wrote for the food section about her southern California childhood: “In the small foothill town of La Crescenta where I grew up,” she wrote, “We spent long summer evenings, after breathlessly hot days, swinging in the hammock…Around 8 each evening, it seemed that everyone in town walked down to Watson’s drugstore to buy a quart of ice cream..(our neighbors) the Merricks made root beer with great success except for the first summer when they couldn’t afford a bottle-capper. They made their first batch corked it and put it in the attic to ferment. In a day or two, all the corks flew out of the bottles, making a colossal mess.”
I laughed over a comment of Marion’s about her mother’s cooking: “My mother followed the government pamphlets on nutrition that she sent away for, and paid no attention to taste” – I have written on my blog a number of times about my own mother’s terrible cooking. We were kindred spirits in more ways than one.
In 1942 Marion married Robert Cunningham, a medical malpractice lawyer, whom she had known since kindergarten. He was a lawyer with a taste for canned pork and beans and well-done red meat. She once summed up his culinary range this way: “He doesn’t like homemade bread and he doesn’t like vegetables. The only green thing he says he likes is money.” (I am struck by the similarities between Marion’s marriage and my own, except mine finally ended in divorce in 1986.)
The newly-wed Cunninghams moved to San Diego, where he was serving in the Marines. During WW2, a time when men were in short supply for many civilian jobs, Marion worked in a gas station for a while. “I always used to think I would own my own station,” she said in a 1991 interview with the New York Times. “I know more than most women about cars.”
“During the five years we lived in Laguna,” she wrote in an article about home entertaining for The Times in 1990, “every friend we knew from our school days arrived to visit (and often to stay). In order to feed this steady stream, I made casseroles, stews, soups and big hearty salads with thick creamy dressings. All good to eat and cheap to make. (Another parallel to my own life and marriage where I usually had a steady stream of visitors—either friends of my four sons or my husband. I served dinner at 6 pm every night and everyone knew if they showed up they would be fed.)
Marion and Robert eventually settled in Walnut Creek, outside Oakland, in northern California. Robert Cunningham died in 1987 from lung cancer.
Marion spent the first half of her adult life raising her children, Mark and Catherine, who survive her, and tending to the family’s ranch home in Walnut Creek. And for much of that time she struggled with agoraphobia, a fear of open and public places. It was so intense at times that she could barely cross the Bay Bridge to San Francisco. She had also developed a problem with alcohol.
In 1972, Marion, at age 50, wanted to go to Oregon to attend cooking classes led by famous food writer/cookbook author James Beard. She stopped drinking, cold-turkey, and faced her phobias. To prepare for the trip she bought three airline tickets to Los Angeles and took two friends to sit on either side of her. They had lunch and flew back. She overcame her fears and attended the class. It was her first experience traveling out of the State of California. Talk about a life-changing experience!
James Beard took to the tall, blue-eyed homemaker (perhaps in much the same way that he took to Helen Evans Brown, another California cookbook author) and for the next 11 years Marion was his assistant, helping him establish cooking classes in the Bay Area. The job gave her a ringside seat to a period in American cooking when regional food, organic produce and a new way of cooking and eating were just becoming part of the culinary dialogue.
That trip, which Mrs. Cunningham said was the first time she felt a sense of power and hope in many years, was the beginning of a journey that would change not only her life but the Bay Area culinary community.
Author/editor Ruth Reichl described the relationship between Beard and Cunningham as “One of the great odd marriages in this food world. Cunningham took care of Beard and he took care of her. Their relationship was so sweet and so protective. It really was a kind of mutual support thing.”
Marion’s association with Beard also gave her the big break of her career, in the late 1970s when he passed her name to Judith Jones, a well-known New York culinary editor, who was looking for someone to rewrite The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. (The original Boston Cooking School cookbook, published in 1896 had undergone a number of revisions since Fannie first wrote her cookbook. The update Marion would write was the 12th revision. She would also do a 13th revision. Revision #11 was done by Wilma Lord Perkins).
“Marion Cunningham epitomized good American food,” Judith Jones, who became her longtime editor at Knopf, said in a statement Wednesday. “She was someone who had an ability to take a dish, savor it in her mouth and give it new life. At a time when Americans were embracing all kinds of foreign cuisine, Marion Cunningham’s love and respect for American food helped ‘The Fannie Farmer Cookbook’ once again earn a place in kitchens across America.”
“It was really a gift out of the blue,” Cunningham said. The only problem was, she didn’t think she had a bit of skill. Oh, she could cook. Cooking had always been something that comforted her. She learned it early on, first watching her father and Italian immigrant mother and grandmother struggle to feed a family during the depression, later trying to make a home from the small salary her Marine Corps husband brought in , and finally, as a mother of two. Initially, she balked saying “I barely made it out of high school. I never paid attention to my teachers. I don’t know where to put periods or commas. How can I do a book?”
But she did, and the 12th revision of the Fannie Farmer cookbook, one of the best selling cookbooks in America, was published in 1979. Cunningham was 57.
Former Gourmet Editor Ruth Reichl later mused that Mrs. Cunningham had completely reinvented herself at midlife and never thought it even remotely remarkable. Reichl also commented that not only did Cunningham know everyone and everything, she was the person you called when you had a triumph or when things weren’t going so well.
The revision of the Fannie Farmer cookbook led to seven more cookbooks; her own television show, Cunningham & Company, which ran for more than 70 episodes, sometimes on the Food Network; and a longstanding cooking column for the Chronicle.
In 1989 Cunningham and a friend started the Baker’s Dozen, an informal group of San Francisco bakers. It grew to more than 200 members and led to another cookbook, The Baker’s Dozen Cookbook, written/edited by Rick Rodgers.
In 1993, Marion received the Grand Dame award from Les Dames d’Escoffier “in recognition and appreciation of her extraordinary achievement and contribution to the culinary arts.” In 1994, she was named Scholar-in-Residence by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
In 1999, Marion published a book titled Learning to Cook with Marion (Alfred A. Knoof. Inc.), written for adults who know nothing about home cooking, but would like to learn.
Michael Bauer, the Executive food editor of the San Francisco Chronicle said that more than anyone else, Marion Cunningham gave legitimacy to home cooking. She took what many people would say was housewife food and really gave it respect by force of her own personality.
Cunningham’s most enduring trait may have been her ability to make even novice cooks feel as if they could accomplish something in the kitchen.
Indeed, she took many of them under her wing and drew from them for her popular book “Learning to Cook”.She made it her life’s work to champion home cooking and preserve the family supper table. It was a theme she focused on in the preface to “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook”, the classic American volume that she was hired to revise in the late 1970s. Like many others, Ruth Reichl, the author and former restaurant critic for The New York Times (and editor of Gourmet magazine before it folded in 2009) came to regard Cunningham as a mother figure.
She was the glue that held the nascent food movement together, Reichl said, the touchstone, the person you checked in with to find out who was doing what all over the country.
Ruth Reichl also wrote, in The Times in 1992, when she was the newspaper’s food editor “If Beard was the father of American cooking, Cunningham became its mother.”
Marion loved to go to the supermarket and look into the shopping carts of total strangers, whom she would then interview about their cooking skills. She made it her life’s work to champion home cooking and preserve the family supper table.
All traits I can readily identify with; I love going into supermarkets in other cities, just to see what they have on their shelves that I don’t find on the shelves in MY supermarkets. (I have been known to buy condiments, like unusual mustards, in stores in Ohio or Florida, to bring home for us to try). I also collect recipe cards (given away free in supermarkets) to exchange with some of my penpals). And I grew up in a home where dinner was on the table at 6 pm—every night. Consequently, throughout the years of raising my sons, they had a home cooked meal every night. We also had unexpected visitors for dinner at night, friends my sons or husband brought home—everyone knew that I always cooked dinner—so I made a lot.
Marion, I think, would have approved of my home cooking. She wrote that “too many families seldom sit down together; it’s gobble and go”. In an interview in 2002 she said “No one is cooking at home anymore, so we are losing all the wonderful lessons we learn at the dinner table…” She became a champion for family meals.
Ms. Cunningham bought a Jaguar with her first royalty check from “THE BREAKFAST BOOK”; the Jaguar became identified with her and she would drive it to a different Bay Area restaurant almost every night, sometimes logging 2,500 miles a month.
Along the way, Marion collected a passel of friends who changed how America cooked and ate, including her close friend Chuck Williams, whose kitchenware company, Williams-Sonoma, was just getting started.
One of the people she discovered was a young Alice Waters, who co-founded Chez Panisse in 1971 with film producer Paul Aratow. Alice was cooking organic and local food at her little restaurant in Berkeley California. Marion took James Beard to the restaurant in 1974 and he put it on the culinary map, marking the beginnings of California cuisine and the modern organic movement.
“She was always my biggest cheerleader,” Ms. Waters once said in an interview. “I just can see her even now with her coffee and coffeecake. That’s kind of where she liked to live.”
Waters also said “I always felt like Marion was a best friend of mine, but I’m sure I’m not alone. Her empathy, charm and humor inspired deep friendships; she was always ready to listen if one needed to talk—one could call her day or night. It’s true we didn’t agree on iceberg lettuce but we did agree on a few other things—including the uselessness of the microwave. Marion never thought cooking was a lofty activity; she was a home cook, someone who loved and knew the importance of eating together at the table with family and friends.”
Cunningham, like her good friend Alice Waters and Julia Child, was a celebrity chef long before it was a household term. In addition to her cookbooks, she wrote articles for Bon appétit and Gourmet magazines, as well as the Contra Costa Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Los Angeles Times. (On reflection, I decided that my earliest knowledge about Marion Cunningham stemmed from recipes/articles published in the Los Angeles Times over the years. I collected the S.O.S. food column recipes for several decades, until the newspaper changed the format and the column no longer appealed to me).
Russ Parsons, who writes a food column in the Los Angeles Times wrote a tribute to Marion, explaining that he worked with her for several years before he actually met her. In the 1990s he was one of her editors—she had a column in the L.A. Times called The Home Cook—but their conversations were mostly over the telephone since she lived in the Bay Area and he in southern California. Eventually, he writes, on a trip to San Francisco and the two finally met in person. Parsons writes, “Up pulled a long gold Jaguar, and out of it climbed one of the most stylish, older women I’d ever seen. Not fashionable—nothing flashy—but tall and slim and dressed just so, her silver hair tied close. There was certainly nothing old-fashioned or matronly about her.”
“We walked into the restaurant”, Parsons continued “where Marion greeted half of the wait staff and all of the chefs by name. That was Marion Cunningham, one part America’s grandma, one part culinary godfather…”
He goes on to comment that it might seem odd that she had two sides, the dining sophisticate and the cooking traditionalist, who could coexist so seamlessly, but they did. “American home cooking had no fiercer advocate than Cunningham. She loved iceberg lettuce beyond all reason. A good bowl of vegetable soup could send her into rhapsodies. Sure, she might dine out every night in some of the most glamorous restaurants in the world, but she also knew the value of a well-prepared biscuit…” (The title of Parsons’ tribute to Marion was titled “AN APPRECIATION: MARION CUNNINGHAM WAS FANNIE FARMER, BUT WITH A DELICIOUS FLAIR” and appeared in the July 14, 2012 edition of the L.A. Times)
The James Beard Foundation provided a profile of Marion Cunningham that everyone will read and “wish they were there” This was written when Marion was 81 years old and focused on Marion in her home.
“Have you ever had a waffle in Marion Cunningham’s kitchen? Some of the biggest names in food have, driving through the hills east of San Francisco to the low-slung house on an acre of land where Cunningham has lived for 42 years. They sit at her kitchen table, near a wall of snapshots that tell the story of a culinary life: there’s Ruth Reichl holding a baby, a boyishly young Chuck Williams, Edna Lewis sitting in the sun, MFK and Julia, and James Beard goofing off as a teenager.
People journey to Cunningham’s house to eat pepper bacon, gossip, and watch one of America’s most famous cooks pour thin, yeast-leavened batter into a pair of waffle irons. She uses an old recipe*, one she discovered when she first revised the “Fannie Farmer Cookbook.”
Going to Marion’s for Waffles has become almost a badge of honor for some of the best professional chefs and food writers in the country. But for Cunningham, the informal gatherings are simply an extension of what she has been preaching for much of her cooking career: sharing simple, delicious food around a family table is the most important thing in life.
She fills her table with neighbors, old friends, and young people who are hungry to learn to cook. It is not a stretch to imagine that James Beard, with whom Cunningham worked side by side for 11 years and who ate those waffles, would be pleased…”
“Cunningham, who keeps current on food trends by driving into San Francisco five nights a week, has a natural media presence. She had her own television show for a time, and shows up regularly in food articles and at seminars. She goes to the local supermarket every day just to see how people are shopping. Through classes and books like “COOKING WITH CHILDREN” and “LEARNING TO COOK WITH MARION CUNNINGHAM,” she has introduced countless people to the kitchen with her patient and folksy, but determined, approach.
Cunningham viewed the dinner table as the modern tribal fire—the place where stories are shared, families are created, and culture is passed on. And she’s fought to protect it as fewer and fewer families eat together.
‘Today, strangers cook most of the food we eat’ she said. ‘If you stop to think about it, people are living like they are in motels. They get fast food, take it home and turn on the TV. We need to sit, facing people, with great regularity, so we are making an exchange and are civilized. We learn such simple, basic life lessons at the dinner table. If you’re handed a platter and take everything off, you are not leaving anything for others.’…”
“She has been one of the hearts of this whole food revolution,” says Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl who in her memoir, ‘TENDER AT THE BONE’ writes lovingly about how Cunningham served as both a personal and professional guide when Reichl was a new food writer. “She’s like the den mother of the food movement. She’s the way we all keep connected to each other.” [All of the above from the Beard Foundation was written 9 years ago, when Cunningham was a mere 81 years old—there is a great deal more to the article which a penpal found for me on the Internet].
Michael Bauer, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “Marion also captured friends with her self-effacing ways and her razor-sharp analysis that was always on point but never mean-spirited. She always started her criticisms with, “Well, dear, don’t you think …”
She claimed to have barely finished high school. Yet when she thought her equally gifted lawyer husband was lauding his intelligence over her, she secretly took the Mensa test and qualified for membership. She never joined because she had proved her point.
That same titanium spirit propelled her through her last work, when the first hints of disease started to appear. It was a challenge, but she wanted to record recipes that she felt were falling into oblivion, like cream of celery soup, Country Captain and Lazy Daisy cake. (All of which did find their way into LOST RECIPES).
It was shortly after the book (LOST RECIPES) was published in 2003 that she received the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. After a long, heartfelt standing ovation, she told the adoring crowd of the country’s top chefs and cookbook authors that if her life ended now she would be happy.
Soon after, the Alzheimer’s fog began to descend more rapidly. She covered up her momentary forgetfulness by saying “my files are full” when she showed up late for a dinner reservation or called in a panic because she went to the wrong restaurant. Her decline, until the last five years or so when she was isolated in a residential care facility, was as elegant as her ascent.
When she gave up driving, she continued to invite friends to her home in Walnut Creek. After she was forced to leave her home and could no longer cook, she dreamed of her favorite pastimes. During sleep she would make the motion of stirring a pot, as if teaching a cooking class; at other times, she appeared to be talking on the telephone.
We tend to immortalize those who pass on and gloss over their less-attractive quirks, but Marion Cunningham was a special person. She had a temper, and if you were the rare person who ended up on her bad side, everyone would know it. But for the most part, her quick sense of humor and caring nature drew her to the top minds in the food world…”
Since I can’t finish this post without a recipe or two of Marion Cunningham’s, I chose Raised Raffles which appears in The Fannie Farmer Cook Book published in 1896 but was reprinted – at least – in the 1922 edition of the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer. It is also in the Eleventh Edition of the Fannie Farmer cookbook, published in 1965.
The recipe for Raised Waffles was also contributed by Marion in the San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook, for which she was a contributor in1997, as well as The Breakfast Book and Lost Recipes. In Lost Recipes, Marion notes “This recipe comes from the 1896 Fannie Farmer cookbooks. The Raised Waffle recipe alone could have sold a million copies. Another food writer commented “Being asked to come over for waffles and bacon at Marion Cunningham’s Walnut Creek ranch house was akin to winning a James Beard award. No invitation was as coveted in the food world since MFK Fisher, who died in 1992, would hold court in her Glen Ellen home”.
*Marion Cunningham’s Raised Waffles
The batter is prepared the night before, so all you have to do the next morning is cook them. Serve them hot with room temperature butter and warmed maple syrup. A note of warning: These do not bake up well in a Belgian waffle iron.
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 1 package active dry yeast
- 2 cups milk, warmed
- 1/2 cup butter, melted
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Instructions: Use a large mixing bowl – the batter will rise to double its original volume. Put the water in the mixing bowl and sprinkle in the yeast. Let stand for 5 minutes, until yeast dissolves. Add the milk, butter, salt, sugar and flour to the yeast and beat until smooth and blended. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand overnight at room temperature.
Just before cooking the waffles, beat in the eggs, add the baking soda and stir until well mixed. The batter will be very thin. Cook on a very hot waffle iron (use about 1/3 cup batter per grid). Bake until the waffles are golden and crisp to the touch.
Note: If there is any leftover batter, store in a covered container in the refrigerator. It will keep for several days.
Per waffle: 265 calories, 7 g protein, 26 g carbohydrate, 15 g fat (9 g saturated), 92 mg cholesterol, 421 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
Sandy’s cooknote: If you keep dry yeast in your pantry (or refrigerator), this recipe is one for which you would most likely have all the ingredients on hand and could prepare, in part, the night before. Waffles and pancakes were two of Bob’s favorite foods so I made them frequently. I think it was his favorite meal.
**I could read Marion’s books and type up her recipes for hours on end; it’s like sitting in the kitchen of a good friend and being allowed to copy some of her recipes (which I have been known to do in the homes of girlfriends) –I Just couldn’t resist sharing one more recipe of Marion’s that provides a bit more insight to the woman—and might be the coffee cake her friend Alice Waters has referred to:
Marion Cunningham’s Coffee Cake
Yield: Makes one 10-inch tube cake
- 1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 eggs
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup sour cream
- 5 teaspoons vanilla extract
To make this cake:
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan or Bundt pan.
Put the butter in a large mixing bowl and beat for several seconds. Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Add the eggs and beat for 2 minutes, or until light and creamy. Put the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl and stir with a fork to blend well. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat until smooth. Add the sour cream and vanilla and mix well.
Spoon the batter into the pan. Bake for about 50 minutes, or until a straw comes out clean when inserted into the center. Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes in the pan. Invert onto a rack and cool a little bit before slicing. Serve warm.
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF MARION CUNNINGHAM’S COOKBOOKS:
THE FANNIE FARMER COOKBOOK*, Twelfth edition with Jeri Laber published in 1979
THE FANNIE FARMER BAKING COOKBOOK, Alfred A. Knopf, 1984
THE BREAKFAST BOOK published by Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 1987
THE SUPPER BOOK, Alfred a. Knopf, 1992
COOKING WITH CHILDREN, 1995
THE FANNIE FARMER COOKBOOK, Thirteenth edition, published in September, 1996
LEARNING TO COOK WITH MARION CUNNINGHAM, published 1999
GOOD EATING, a combination of THE BREAKFAST BOOK AND THE SUPPER BOOK, published 1999.
LOST RECIPES, published by Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2003
COMPLIMENTS OF THE CHEF 100 Great Recipes from the Innovating Restaurants & Cafes of Berkeley, California, foreword by Marion Cunningham, compiled by the Sisterhood of Congregation Beth El, with Paul T. Johnston, Aris Books, 1985
THE GREENS COOKBOOK (multiple authors) 1987
CALIFORNIA WALNUTS/TALK OF THE TOWN –published by the California Walnut Marketing Board, foreword by Marion Cunningham, published 1984, contains some of her own recipes.
MAPLE SYRUP COOKBOOK (Author is Ken Haedrich; a charming foreword was written by Marion Cunningham, who was a friend of his for many years), 2001
*Sandy’s Cooknote: Regarding the Fannie Farmer cookbook which has been published in various sizes and, at last count, 13 editions, two of which were edited by Marion Cunningham. There were at least two facsimile editions; one has a green dust jacket and was published by Weathervane Books; the second has a yellow dust jacket with blue print and was also published by Weathervane Books. The only date indicated on both books is 1896, for the original publishing of the cookbook. More recent editions are referred to simply as “the Fannie Farmer cookbook” but the original – and some later editions – carried the title of the Boston Cooking School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer. I had thought to write an article about Fannie Farmer about a year ago but got sidetracked when Bob became so ill. And the lady had a most interesting life—perhaps now I can get the article about Fannie Farmer finished for you!
To summarize—if one can truly summarize a life as challenging and inspiring as Marion Cunningham’s—you only have to Google her life to find story after story, written by those who knew her. (Fannie Farmer, like Marion, had serious obstacles to overcome and I am willing to bet that Marion was inspired by the similarities in their respective lives.
Columnist Russ Parsons also offers a comment that might explain something about Marion Cunningham, in which he states, “Maybe because her own family was somewhat chaotic—she was quite open about having been an alcoholic into her 50s—she would argue all the more passionately the necessity of breaking bread together…”
I wish I could have known Marion Cunningham. I wish I could have sat at her kitchen table and watch her make raised waffles. I am saddened that Alzheimer’s robbed her of the last years of her creative life just as the disease robbed my mother of the last years of her life.
I am also left with many questions about Marion, a woman who championed family meals and family values. In article after article written about her passing, there is only a passing reference to her husband, Robert and two children, Mark and Catherine. Nowhere, in all the articles I have found about her preparing waffles and bacon for friends, have I finally found references to son Mark, or daughter Catherine being present. I finally found an obit reference to Robert Cunningham, stating that he died in 1987 of lung cancer.
Rest in peace, Marion Cunningham.
—Sandra Lee Smith, July, 2012