Mothers of substance and sustenance


Marion Cunningham, 82, a venerated figure in the food world, is shown at home in Walnut Creek, Calif., Thursday, May 27, 2004. (Photo by BEN MARGOT/AP/PHOTO BY BEN MARGOT/AP)
May 8, 2012

Whether you learned kitchen craft at the elbow of a family matriarch or have come to understand the significance of food through the printed word, chances are good that women you’ve never met have imprinted on your culinary DNA. They are mothers of invention, in effect, who have shown us the way by instruction and by example — their strengths passed on in legacy, in creativity and in recipes we adapt as our own.

Here are just a few of the many, some perhaps lesser known these days, who continue to inspire us.

FLORENCE LIN, who was born in the port city of Ningbo, near Shanghai, is America’s doyenne of Chinese cooking. Her books, lectures and classes long ago established her as one of our most prominent authorities on Chinese cuisine. Yet equal to her knowledge is her voice. She makes me appreciate the resourcefulness of Chinese cooks in creating a cuisine so innovative despite tremendous limitations.

Not familiar with her name? In 1968, Lin was one of the principal consultants for Time-Life’s groundbreaking “Cooking of China” volume in its “Foods of the World” series. During the 1960s, when Chinese cooking was at a peak of popularity, she co-founded the Chinese Cooking School at the China Institute in New York, where she taught thousands of students over the course of 25 years. Her classes were so famous even Julia Child attended. She also poured her knowledge into five other cookbooks (one of them, “Florence Lin’s Complete Book of Chinese Noodles, Dumplings and Breads,” is a sought-after collector’s item).

At age 92, Lin continues to disseminate her vast culinary knowledge. Most recently I was delighted to learn she had spent the day teaching her granddaughter to cook a few of her favorite classic Chinese dishes.

— Grace Young, whose most recent book is “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge”

MARION CUNNINGHAM, the woman with the bright-blue eyes and silver ponytail, could be a gentle scold: “Everyone’s always saying they’re so busy,” she would say. “I’d like to know one thing: What is everyone doing?”

Before I started making restaurant reservations for a living, I used to cook. A lot. During my first tour of duty at The Washington Post, the Food section published Wednesdays and Sundays. One of my jobs was to play Joe Reader and test the bulk of the recipes.

Looking back now, I’m struck by the ones that made the most-lasting impressions. They were grounded in common sense and American tradition, courtesy of Cunningham, who didn’t transition from full-time housewife to cooking teacher until she was almost 50. She went on, of course, to famously revise “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” (1996) for a new generation of readers and to become an advocate for simple home cooking. She kept her California telephone number listed so anyone with a cooking question could call.

From the pages of her books, Cunningham taught this greenhorn many lessons.

A recipe for graham crackers appears in “The Fannie Farmer Baking Book” and involves fewer than 10 ingredients. Homemade graham crackers are craggier than factory versions, but they are infinitely fresher-tasting and nuanced.

Don’t be too busy to bake a batch; the graham cracker recipe appears in our online database. Revelations rarely come easier.

— Tom Sietsema

MAIDA HEATTER has positioned a two-foot-tall Dutch cookie mold of a cat beside the front door of her Miami Beach home. Virtually unchanged since 1956, her kitchen has been the scene of baking, exhaustive recipe testing and writing for her 10 books about baking.

Now 97, Heatter credits her mother, Sadie, as a source of culinary inspiration. Her father, Gabriel, was a famous radio commentator of the 1940s. They loved to entertain, beginning Heatter’s life of meeting and mingling with the famous.

She was discovered by Craig Claiborne after she sent out a news release that her husband’s restaurant was serving elephant-meat omelets in honor of the 1968 Miami Republican National Convention. The New York food journalist visited her at home and was treated to a dizzying array of Heatter’s favorite cakes and desserts.

Her first book contract soon followed. “Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts” was published by Knopf in 1974. Her style has been characterized by a delightful mix of down-home favorites and classic European cakes and pastries, many of them new to American readers. Her clear, detailed directions have made more than one critic observe that her recipes make readers feel that she’s standing beside them.

Upon introduction to Heatter, the wife of Massachusetts congressman Tip O’Neill’s first words were “Palm Beach Brownies!” Queen Mother’s Cake, Skinny Peanut Wafers, Corn Melba and Bull’s Eye Cheesecake are just a few of Heatter’s showstoppers, never to be forgotten.

— Nick Malgieri, pastry chef-instructor and cookbook author

RACHEL CARSON grew up outside Pittsburgh and saw firsthand the effects that belching smokestacks and chemical-laden industrial wastes had on the air and waterways of her youth.

Curious and gifted with the ability to translate her observations to the printed page, Carson spent years accumulating scientific knowledge about the natural world, leading to an unusual position for a woman in the 1940s: editor in chief of all publications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

She eventually left the agency to focus on her writing and her increasing concern over the use of pesticides, a carry-over from World War II when the U.S. military saturated countless acres with DDT to protect troops from disease-bearing insects. With her groundbreaking book “Silent Spring,” written in 1962, two years before her death, Carson wanted us to understand one thing: Humans, no matter how evolved, are not separate from nature. “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?” she wrote.

Every time we eat organic, pesticide-free fruits and vegetables, we owe a small debt of gratitude to Rachel Carson, a one-woman firebrand who took on the government and powerful agricultural interests to break the dark spell that chemicals had on a postwar America.

— Tim Carman

SHARON HERBST wrote cookbooks, but her most important book didn’t include any recipes. It is a thick, paperback guide that has helped standardize the culinary lexicon of newspapers, magazines, television shows and Web sites since its first edition in 1990.

Herbst’s early career plan was to be a mystery writer, according to her 2007 obituary in the Marin (Calif.) Independent Journal, but she developed an interest in writing about food when she found herself correcting an instructor in a cooking class. Years later, a publisher asked her to suggest someone to write an all-encompassing food reference book. Herbst said she could do it, and spent the next three years compiling the first “The Food Lover’s Companion,” which had more than 3,000 dictionary-style entries on food terminology, with definitions, applications and derivations.

The book is now in its fourth edition; the updates for that volume were finished by her husband Ron after Herbst’s death from ovarian cancer. It includes more than 6,700 entries. It’s the kind of book that you can flip quickly through to, say, Page 156, to learn the definition of and applications for choux pastry, then find yourself getting sucked in and learning things about Choron sauce, choucroute and choy sum that you didn’t know you wanted to know.

— Jim Webster

MADELEINE KAMMAN, brought here from France by her American husband, set out in the early 1960s to teach culinary arts to home cooks. At the end of her teaching career, in 2000, she was running a celebrated cooking school in Napa Valley for professional chefs who came from all over the country to learn at her side, had eight books to her credit and had hosted a cooking show on PBS from 1984 to 1991.

A rabid perfectionist, Kamman was the real deal: a French chef. Yet she never achieved the popularity of Julia Child, an American who cooked French food. You could argue that her legacy was as important, if not as obvious: Child taught us to cook for ourselves; Kamman did that, too, and she also taught chefs to cook for us.

To her students, Kamman could be a fearsome figure, unstinting with criticism when they failed to measure up to her high standards. But she held herself to those same standards. Ethel Goralnick, a longtime colleague who worked with Kamman on 26 episodes of her TV show, says there were never any do-overs during taping. Or almost never: “In all that time, they only once stopped the cameras — because she said one word in German.”

Now 81, she lives in Vermont.

— Jane Touzalin

BETTY FUSSELL understood early on that people have deeply personal responses to food, and that writing about food would be a significant contribution in the realm of American culture. The list of publications her work has appeared in speaks to the quality of her prose, which is wonderfully vivid and well researched. Her 2008 book, “Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef,” was well ahead of the pendulum swing toward renewed interest in that topic.

An energetic and dramatic speaker, the native Californian began her moderating duties on a recent cookbook panel by declaring: “Cookbooks are a fraud. . . . They pretend to be how-to manuals and they’re actually dreamworks.” By next year she hopes to finish her 12th book, “How to Cook a Coyote,” which has to do with being at the bottom of the predator chain. She will turn 85 in July.

The role of food as it pertains to old age is a current fascination of hers: “It becomes a ritual of order and pleasure, a funny kind of delicious anchor,” she says. “Memories get clearer, and my tastes have simplified.”

— Bonnie S. Benwick

RECIPES:

Diced ShrimpWith Croutons

Stir-Fried Bay Scallops With Pistachios

Savoyard Polenta Pilaf

Pork Tenderloin With Jalapeno Sauce

Miami Beach Sour Cream Cake

Which women would you add to the list? Join today’s Free Range chat at noon to discuss: live.washingtonpost.com.

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