Marion Cunningham, cookbook writer, dies at 90

(Ben Margot/Associated Press) - Marion Cunningham, a venerated figure in the food world, is shown at home in Walnut Creek, Calif., in 2004.

Marion Cunningham, the California home cook chosen to revive “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” in 1972 and who went on to become a food writer and cooking instructor revered by America's greatest culinary talents, died July 11 at a hospital in Walnut Creek, Calif. She was 90.

The death was confirmed by Clark Wolf, a food consultant and family friend. Mrs. Cunningham had Alzheimer’s disease and had been living at a care facility in Walnut Creek.

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.

Beard knew that Knopf editor Judith Jones was looking for someone to update and improve the encyclopedic volume; Jones knew the effort would call for meticulous testing in a home environment.

“It was a big undertaking, and it had to be someone who was quintessentially an American cook,” Jones once told the Associated Press. “Marion just seemed the perfect person.”

Mrs. Cunningham tested hundreds and hundreds of recipes in her own kitchen, suggesting some for deletion and adding directions that included modern conveniences such as the microwave (an appliance about which she had nothing positive to say). She was known for her forthrightness and a humor that produced memorable zingers known as Marionisms, to wit, “I don’t like to see food too fancy. You don’t know whether to frame it or eat it.”

In addition to the 12th edition of the Farmer cookbook, published in 1979, Mrs. Cunningham was responsible for the 13th edition (1990) and for “The Fannie Farmer Baking Book” (1996), thereby fusing her persona with Fannie Merritt Farmer’s as icons of American cookery.

Mrs. Cunningham received a Grande Dame award from Les Dames D'Escoffier in 1993 and a James Beard Lifetime Achievement award in 2003, among the highest honors of the culinary world.

Her worries for the nation’s appetites remained in place during research for her last cookbook. She stayed on message in countless interviews, advocating for the return of a proper dinner hour at home.

“The food that we eat tells us who we are and where we’re from,” she said in 2002. “People have memories that they’ve lived with all their lives of what was fixed at home. How can you do that with a Big Mac?”

Marion Enwright was born Feb. 7, 1922, in Los Angeles and raised in Glendale, in Southern California. Her father was an alcoholic, prone to fits of rage because of a work-related injury that kept him from holding a steady job.

She credited her Italian grandmother with introducing her to the joys of cooking, but her enthusiasm in the kitchen were largely disregarded by her husband, trial lawyer Robert Cunningham.

“He doesn’t like homemade bread, and he doesn’t like vegetables,” she told the New York Times in 1983. “The only green thing he says he likes is money.” (In the same interview, her husband acknowledged the statement.)

Robert Cunningham died in 1988. Survivors include two children, Mark and Catherine.

In later years, after her two children were grown and her husband died, Mrs. Cunningham would host Sunday brunches for guests at her home in Walnut Creek, where she would make her acclaimed yeasted waffles.

“We are living motel lives,” she once told the Chronicle. “The idea of sitting down to dinner is being lost in the rush. No one is cooking at home anymore, so we are losing all the wonderful lessons we learn at the dinner table. And the memories of the past tell us who we are and where we’re from. It carries us into the future.”

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