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CELEBRATING AMERICA'S MOM : For Marion Cunningham's birthday, 100 cooks, bakers, writers and restaurateurs threw a surprise party at the Robert Mondavi winery

March 05, 1992|RUTH REICHL | TIMES FOOD EDITOR

James Beard didn't like people who were too nice," says Marion Cunningham. "When I was nice, he wanted to kick me."

Despite this crucial failing, Cunningham managed to work with Beard for many years. "Well," she says matter-of-factly, "he knew he had more fun when I was around."

Almost everybody has more fun when Marion Cunningham is around. Which is one reason why, although she lacks Beard's imposing presence, this beautiful, lanky, down-to-earth all-American has inherited his mantle. If Beard was the father of American cooking, Cunningham has become its mother.

Long before it became chic, she was the champion of American cooking, insisting upon the virtues of iceberg lettuce over mesclun , apple pie over tarte tatin , pot roast over pot au feu. She inspired an entire generation of American cooks, and when Cunningham turned 70 last month, they came from all across America to throw her a birthday bash.

There is nothing like a party thrown by food people for one of their own. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse came up with the idea of having the party. The first problem--finding a room large enough to hold more than 100 people--was solved when Margrit and Robert Mondavi offered to have the party at their winery. Designer Billy Cross volunteered his services to decorate the room--and then every able-bodied cook in Northern California offered to pitch in.

Produce was flown in from the Chino Ranch in Rancho Santa Fe, hickory nuts were hand-picked in Minnesota, special orchids were grown for the tables.

Then there was the invitation problem. Catherine Cunningham went through her mother's address book to make up the guest list, but dozens of wannabe party-goers were devastated to discover they had not been included. (A few even wrote to Cunningham,after the event; "I thought you loved me!" complained one.)

This was all quite a contrast to Cunningham's 45th birthday. Twenty-five years earlier, Marion Cunningham stood on the steps of an airplane, crying. "If you don't get on that plane," said her son Mark, "you'll never go anywhere, you'll never do anything, and you'll never be anybody."

At that point Marion Cunningham hadn't been anywhere. Born in Glendale and married to her childhood sweetheart, she had never even left the state of California. She hadn't done much either--she was afraid of almost everything. Plagued by phobias so severe that for years she was terrified of transportation of all sorts, Cunningham found elevators so frightening that she now says: "I couldn't even have children until I found a hospital with a maternity ward on the ground floor."

But Cunningham had always cooked, and at 45, she finally got off the ground. She conquered her fear of flying and went to Portland to take a class with James Beard. Cunningham was charmed by Beard, and the feeling was entirely mutual. A few years later she became his assistant.

Putting her phobias behind her, she traveled the world with Beard, and when he was asked to revise "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," Beard suggested that she do it instead. Unbeknown to Cunningham, he sent a packet of her letters to the publishers as proof that she could write. She has since completed a second revision of Fannie Farmer, "The Fannie Farmer Baking Book," "The Breakfast Book," the forthcoming "Supper Book," and numerous articles for magazines and newspapers.

But to call Cunningham a writer would be to miss the point. She is, above all, a mentor. She reads everything, knows everybody. She is the person who is never too busy to talk. "My first article about food had just been published," says Jeffrey Steingarten, who writes about food for Vogue magazine, "when the phone rang. It was Marion Cunningham. She wanted to talk about it."

Cunningham always wants to talk about it. It is that quality that sets her apart from other people. She is blessed with an insatiable curiosity and an overwhelming interest in other people. She is the world's greatest listener. "I have always loved meeting people," she says. "I think that has been one of the greatest joys of my life, just finding out about people. They tell you the most amazing things."

"Did Marion ever tell you about Cecilia Chiang and the 12 suitcases?" asks Alice Waters. She is standing in the kitchen at the Mondavi winery, shelling the first of 22 pounds of shrimp. It is 3 o'clock on the day before the party, and the preparations are getting under way. This time tomorrow there will be three times as many people in the kitchen, but right now a skeleton crew of about eight floats in and out, opening oysters, cracking crabs, peeling carrots.

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