She was a married mother of two, a tall, gray-haired and handsome woman who championed the simple home-cooked meal. Through eras of designer greens, she remained an unapologetic proponent of iceberg lettuce.
She wrote or collaborated on eight cookbooks, the last of which was “Lost Recipes” in 2003. Her cooking show series “Cunningham & Company” appeared in the early days of the Food Network. She wrote food columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times, and her articles appeared in most U.S. major food magazines during the past 30 years.
Mrs. Cunningham also was responsible for shepherding relationships among key figures of American cuisine: Chuck Williams, founder of Williams-Sonoma; Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.; and former Gourmet magazine editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl, among them.
An avid baker, Mrs. Cunningham and bakery owner Amy Pressman founded a group called the Bakers Dozen in the late 1980s to share hard-won knowledge about the mysteries of the craft. The effort produced a cookbook and prompted the formation of several other Bakers Dozen chapters across the United States, which carry on today.
“She’s one of the people who keeps the food community together,” Reichl told the Associated Press in 2002. “She got her life together and discovered work. She showed that a woman of her generation could go from being a housewife, could follow her passion and could make a career out if it.”
Mrs. Cunningham experienced a midlife renaissance through food, reminiscent of Julia Child’s career. As a longtime agoraphobic with a self-diagnosed drinking problem, Mrs. Cunningham accepted a friend’s challenge to leave her home state of California for the first time, at age 45, to attend a cooking class in Seaside, Ore., given by James Beard.
She and the noted American chef hit it off right away. He was impressed with her instincts about food, and with what has been referred to many times as her “critical palate.” She served as Beard’s influential assistant for more than a decade.
“I think one of James’ greatest strengths was that he never got confused about food fads and fashions,” Mrs. Cunningham told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. “He thought a lot of people made the error of trying to impress people with food rather than please them. He never understood why so many cooks wouldn’t think of serving an ear of corn to guests, thinking that it wasn’t fancy enough. He could think a hot dog was as good as a bowl of pasta with white truffles.”
Mrs. Cunningham had a high school education and felt initially unqualified to work on “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” a volume written by New England cook Fannie Merritt Farmer and first published in 1896. While the book was revised many times and sold millions of copies, its recipes were out of date and relied on canned cream of mushroom soup and other heavy ingredients that might not appeal to modern tastes.