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FROM THE 21ST CENTURY / Three Visions of Domestic Bliss

In Praise of Togetherness

Want to Enrich Your Family Life in the Next Millennium? Marion Cunningham Offers This Bit of Advice: Forget Fancy Designs and Gadgets. Learn How to Cook.

May 16, 1999|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | Michelle Huneven's last article for the magazine was an essay on a beloved white horse

On a clear, cool spring morning, Marion Cunningham is waiting for a sprinkler repair person and getting ready to cook waffles for friends. A tall, vigorous, beautiful woman with snow white hair and lively blue eyes, she's in a sweatshirt, slacks and a relaxed, welcoming mood.

The cookbook author and syndicated columnist began her career in 1972, when she was asked to revise the "Fannie Farmer Cookbook." It took her five years, and she's done another revision since. She's also written "The Fannie Farmer Baking Book," "The Supper Book," "The Breakfast Book" and "Cooking With Children." And she just came out with "Learning to Cook With Marion Cunningham," a text for adults who really, truly don't know how to cook. If ever there was a professional home cook, it's Marion Cunningham. And if anybody has made excellent use of a home kitchen, it's Cunningham.

Her house in Walnut Creek is, as she puts it, "one room wide." At one end is the master bedroom, where built-in bookshelves hold hundreds of cookbooks. The window looks out onto green foothills and Mt. Diablo. The house, in fact, was designed to provide a view of Mt. Diablo from every room, including the living and dining rooms at the opposite end of the house.

What's remarkable about Marion Cunningham's home kitchen is how utterly unremarkable it is. It's so small and modestly appointed, it's easy to assume there's another kitchen--a large, roomy, professional kitchen--where she really does her work. It's incredible that all those recipes for the two revisions of the Fannie Farmer cookbook, five other books and countless newspaper columns were tested in an unabashedly amateur kitchen that's not much larger than what you'd find in many apartments.

The refrigerator is a Kenmore. There's no professional Wolf or Viking stove--just a KitchenAid built-in electric oven and an electric stove top. Yes, an electric stove top. Anyone who's ever made the leap from scrambling eggs to cooking omelets understands the superiority and necessity of a gas range. Cunningham says mildly: "It would be too difficult to run a gas line into the kitchen, and I've gotten used to electric. You just have to learn to take the pan off the burner instead of adjusting the flame.

"But I wouldn't recommend my oven," she says frankly. "The old-fashioned dials held calibration a lot better than these digital pads do. I've had these pads replaced twice. I know they're on the way out when I have to press the numbers really hard. I haven't been able to find repair people who can fix the digital controls; they only know how to replace them."

She takes a moment to check on the waffle batter. It's an original Fannie Farmer recipe, made with yeast, and was mixed earlier to allow time for it to sit. She stirs it thoughtfully and approves the thin, ropy consistency.

As for her general cooking equipment, nothing exceeds the arsenal of the average home cook. An Oster blender. A KitchenAid mixer. Two Toastmaster waffle irons ("I finally conceded that one simply isn't enough when company comes. Nobody wants to wait for waffles.")

This space, says Cunningham, is just what she wants: a kitchen that's as close as possible to the kitchens of her readers--other home cooks. She also does her own grocery shopping.

Wouldn't a productive, busy cookbook writer desire, at least secretly, the professional-level equipment that so many people are putting into their homes as a matter of course: the Sub-Zero refrigerators and powerful six-burner gas stoves, the alloyed pots and pans with mind-numbing price tags?

"All those things are quite beautiful to look at," she says. "But I come from a different time, when you didn't need to start with the best of everything, but made the most of what you had." She surveys her compact work area. "Of course, I'm not too many years away from pioneer women cooking in one pot over an open fire." She laughs. "I'm happy with easy-to-use, inexpensive things that work. What's important to me is not what I cook with, but how cooking and food puts me in community with others."

Surely then, she finds it hopeful that today's architects are making kitchens larger, designing them as communal rooms, intended to provide the hearths and hearts of new homes.

Cunningham is skeptical. "This may not be the broad view, but I'm concerned how little communal life there is in homes, regardless of what kitchens look like. How often are these people using their kitchens to host a bunch of people?" In reality, she continues, homes are empty most of the day. They're a place to reheat take-out or microwave instant soup. Families are always heading out the door to work, to school, to soccer, to the gym. No longer are they sitting down together.

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