In 1972, Marion, at age 50, wanted to go to Oregon to attend cooking classes led by famous food writer/cookbook author James Beard. 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.
Marion caught the golden ring on a Merry-Go-Round when James Beard recommended Marion to do the revision of Fannie Farmer’s cookbook to Judith Jones. It was a huge success and she followed up in 1984 with The Fannie Farmer Baking Book. (Please refer to my article “MARION CUNNINGHAM, COOKBOOK AUTHOR” for more information).
I wondered how Marion decided to write something next called THE BREAKFAST BOOK. She tells us in her own words in the Introduction to The Breakfast Book. “As my interest in breakfast intensified over the last few years” she writes, “I became more and more inspired to write this book. I found there are almost no books on the subject—no tempting recipes and nothing to encourage people to cook breakfast. There are lots of brunch books,” she concedes, “but brunch, with its undefined ingredients and preparation is entirely different from breakfast—it could be any meal. Brunch is almost always a partylike affair, served with wine and liquor, and with an assortment of unrelated dishes…”
Marion notes that “Breakfast, on the other hand, involves no alcohol and usually consists of grains, dairy products, fruits and maybe eggs or a little meat or fish.”
Marion said that she often asked people what they thought of breakfast and most would instantly reply that it was their favorite meal—but when pressed to tell what they eat for breakfast, their answers become vague. She concluded that people liked the idea of breakfast but needed some guidance and recipes to get them to cook it.
“Breakfast,” Marion wrote, “has remained pure amid all the food trends with their stylish dishes and chic ingredients. The honest simplicity of breakfast is so captivating. The most delicious breakfasts usually derive from the humblest of ingredients…” Money alone does not buy good food, Marion wisely advises.
Then, she writes, “The deeper reason that breakfast inspires me is that we have become so busy maintaining our lives in the working world that we often find ourselves sharing the same house with strangers. The meaning of “home” has disappeared.” [I can’t help but wonder if Marion was talking about her own home and her own life]. She continues, “Surveys report that families no longer sit down together for the evening meal. Eating is a lonely experience for many, and we can be lonely without even knowing it sometimes. Standing up by a microwave oven or refrigerator or in front of the TV, automatically eating, leaves out a precious human element from our lives….” Elsewhere she writes, “if it is true that d inner is becoming a solitary fast-feed-yourself experience, I’m hoping that breakfast, with its easy, wholesome honesty, will be an opportunity to be with and share oneself with friends and family. There is no greater inducement to conversation than sitting around a table and sharing a good meal…”
Marion also says that her sense of health is that getting a good start with breakfast makes it the most important meal of the day. She writes, “After the night’s abstinence, it important to break fast and eat a nutritious meal..”
The Breakfast Book begins with Yeast Breads and oh, that’s something I really love to make. She provides us with a wide range of Yeast breads, starting with a Basic American White Bread from which you can also make Cinnamon Swirl Bread. There is a recipe for Granola Breakfast Bread or Raisin Cinnamon Wheat Bread, Oatmeal Orange Bread or Mexican Bead. She provides recipes for Glazed Cinnamon rolls as well as Hot Cross Buns, Sticky Buns and Crumpets and English Muffins—these are just a sampling of what you will find in the first chapter of The Breakfast Book. (and I’m heading for Trader Joe’s to see if they have rye flour. I love rye bread (all the Schmidts* do – in my family whenever a group of Schmidts are in a restaurant ordering breakfast, invariably we all ask for rye bread) – and Marion’s recipe for Orange Rye Bread sounds delicious! Then I discovered Marion’s recipe for Chocolate Walnut Butter Bread…that sounds absolutely perfect for a Christmas morning breakfast!
(*Sandy’s note – I didn’t misspell Smith. I was a Schmidt before I married a Smith). **
The second chapter is titled TOASTS, FRENCH TOAST, AND BREAKFAST SANDWICHES –Choose from a wide array of recipes – from Melba toast to milk toast, cinnamon toast or French Toast, Breakfast Sandwiches that range from fig and Ham on Rye Bread to Sausage and Melted Cheese, Date and Breakfast Cheese or Ham and Farm Cheese Butter-Fried – or try Mexican Breakfast, which sounds great too. A breakfast sandwich is a great thing to take along with you in the morning when you are just too pressed for time to sit down at the table and eat. Let’s face it; we can’t all, always sit down and eat a proper breakfast. My son Kelly has become an expert at his own version of a Mexican breakfast – a breakfast burrito that is a tortilla filled with scrambled egg and maybe some bits of bacon or sausage. And my children grew up on French bread –it was something I could always afford to make because we often didn’t have very much money; I bought day-old bead at the thrift bakery and French bread was always the perfect way to use the bread.
The next chapter in THE BREAKFAST BOOK is QUICK BREADS and there are so many from which to choose – I love making muffins and that has always been a staple recipe in my household when my children were growing up. Marion offers such a range of muffins – raw apple muffins, for instance, or Bran Muffins, Boston Brown Bread Muffins and Fig Muffins, Lemon Yogurt Muffins and Orange walnut muffins, Persimmon muffins and Last Word in Nutmeg Muffins. Other quick breads include Blueberry Cranberry Bread and Date Nut Bread which also offers variations made with figs, or prunes. There is also a Christmas Bread recipe I am looking forward to trying – and you might know, most quick breads can be made in small loaf pans for gift-giving at Christmas—a nice gift with a jar of homemade jam!
There is a chapter on Cereals, both hot and cold—and I have made many hot pots of oatmeal when my children were growing up; Marion also provides recipes for making granola. This is followed by a chapter on Doughnuts and Fritters while Griddling has its own chapter with a wide assortment of pancake and waffle recipes, including the Raised Waffle recipe that became one of Marion’s signature recipes.
Some of the biggest names in food have enjoyed Marion’s waffles, driving through the hills east of San Francisco to the low-slung house on an acre of land where Cunningham lived for 42 years. They sat at her kitchen table, near a wall of snapshots that told 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 journied 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 used an old recipe*, one she discovered when she first revised the “Fannie Farmer Cookbook.”
Going to Marion’s for Waffles became 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.
There, in the Breakfast Book is Marion’s recipe for Raised Waffles. Indeed, there are plenty of other recipes for pancakes and waffles but none will ever be as famous as Marion’s Raised Waffles.
The next chapter is simply titled “EGGS” but the assortment offered is anything but simple. Instructions follow for soft-boiled eggs, coddled eggs, hard boiled eggs, goldenrod eggs, scalloped, scotch, fried, poached, shirred, baked, scrambled, – you name it, it’s all here. And omelets! (I love omelets and fortunately so did Bob for whom I cooked breakfast for several decades. Marion provides recipes for filled omelets: ham, apple, cheese, bacon, herb, mushroom, jelly, smoked salmon, mushroom, Mexican, – on and on. What we discovered about omelets back in the day was this: I could make a fairly substantial omelet and then cut it in half – then one half was cut into two and we had a good size omelet portion for each of us. The uneaten half was refrigerated for another day. It was easy to reheat an omelet; you just have to be careful not over heat it.
At the beginning of this chapter, Marion shares a story about her childhood. She writes, “I grew up in the small rural foothill town of La Crescenta, California, in the twenties. I was an only child and my mother was twenty-seven when I was born (which is like being forty-five today). As a result, she was an anxious mother, always sending away for government pamphlets for advice on how to feed me. One of the things the pamphlets said was that an egg and a glass of goat’s milk were perfect whole foods for a growing child. So, my father had to get a goat to join the chickens we already kept”.
She still liked eggs, Marion wrote. She doesn’t mention the goat’s milk (which, incidentally, my first grandchild lived on the first years of her life, since she was extremely allergic to cow’s milk). But Marion writes, “If I’m going to have one small thing for breakfast, I cook one egg until its almost hard, shell it [peel], and have it with lots of pepper on it…”
Marion advises, “It is easy to cook eggs properly if you follow a couple of basic guidelines. With few exceptions, eggs should be cooked slowly and over low heat, because both egg white and egg yolk coagulate at well below the temperature of boiling water. When cooking an egg in its shell, if you first pierce its large end with an egg-piercing gadget or pushpin, it will help keep the shell from cracking as it cooks…”
Sandy’s cooknote: I discovered this method of cooking eggs – whether hardboiled or softboiled, and now keep a straight pin within reach in the kitchen. A safety pin works, too.
The next chapter is titled FRUIT FIXING and what a treat this is – how to prepare mangoes, apples, dates and figs, oranges and grapefruit, grapes, berries and many other fruits. There are some I wouldn’t have thought of, such as baked bananas and baked pineapple, or cranberry poached apples.
And then there are POTATOES. Some you will be familiar with, such as hash brown potatoes and oven fries—but you may not know about Rough and Ready Potatoes or Raw Potato Pancakes or Potato Bacon Pie.
The next chapter is titled MEAT AND FISH and contains some of my tried-and-true favorites , such as corned beef hash and pork tenderloin with biscuits and gravy. (I’ve used cube steak and sausage as the meat when I am making biscuits and gravy, too. Something that provides a lot of drippings makes a great gravy).
Marion provides recipes for Ham and Bacon, Ham Loaf, Fresh Fish, Trout Fried with Oatmeal, Fish Hash, Red Flannel Fish Hash and salt cod cakes as well.
A chapter titled CUSTARDS AND PUDDINGS came as a surprise; I wouldn’t have thought of custards and puddings as breakfast fare, but then again – amongst the choices offered by Marion include a Cornflake Pudding, Steamed Persimmon Pudding, Maple Oatmeal Steamed Pudding and lots of other recipes. Included is The Coach House Bread and Butter Pudding recipe. This Coach House is the legendary New York Restaurant.
Another surprise is the chapter titled COOKIES, PIES, AND CAKES in which Marion provides recipes for Mother’s Cooies, Cereal Cookies, English Digestives, Oatmeal Bran Breakfast Cookies—of course! I thought. What could be better on a busy morning than a few oatmeal bran breakfast cookies to take along with you to work to have with your coffee? And most Midwestern farmers and groups such as the Amish are familiar with having pie for breakfast.
“The cookie recipes are not too sweet” Marion advises. And, she adds, “The breakfast cakes in this chapter are meant to be sliced, toasted, and buttered, not frosted. With good cake the wholesomeness will shine through without the added frill of frosting. Breakfast cakes are wonderful, particularly if you are a sweet and not a savory breakfast person…”
Look for Indian Loaf Cake, Madeira Poppy Seed Cake, Fresh Ginger Cake or Soft Gingerbread—and possibly to become my favorite, Great Coffee Cake which comes with several great variations.
My favorite chapter, I don’t mind admitting – is one titled CONDIMENTS because these recipes are the type I collect and can’t wait to try on family and friends. There is Raw Fresh Fruit Jam and Peach Rose Jam, Strawberry Llump Preserves and Orange Marmalade – and one I’ve never heard of, Beet Marmalade! There is Lemon Pineapple Apple Relish and Date Raisin Condiment, spice Walnuts and many other recipes, the kind of presentation I love to display for a breakfast or brunch at my house.
There is a chapter titled Breakfast Beverages in which you will find tea, coffee, hot chocolate or Mexican Chocolate, Cuban Orange Juice or Airy Eggnog, Garden Tomato Juice or even Malted Milk.
Marion concludes The Breakfast Book with an assortment of Breakfast Menus to inspire you.
I know that Marion was afraid that real breakfasts were being overshadowed and lost in our busy lives, but I have spent years preparing breakfast and it’s still a favorite meal to prepare for family or friends. Sometimes in our busy lives, it’s not possible to prepare breakfast but you could keep some of these things on hand for your family members—and you can always focus on nice breakfasts on the weekends.
THE BREAKFAST BOOK is sure to provide you with a lot of inspiration!
THE BREAKFAST BOOK by Marion Cunningham was published by Alfred A. Knopf, NY, in 1987. I found THE BREAKFAST BOOK on Amazon.com, new for 15.00 or pre-owned for $7.45. Alibris.com has copies starting at $1.02, pre-owned, with a recommended copy at $1.19. They have new copies for $12.95.
Happy cooking & happy cookbook collecting!