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Marion Cunningham dies at 90; icon of American cooking

Overcoming personal challenges to study with James Beard, Marion Cunningham made revisions that brought 'The Fannie Farmer Cookbook' back into American kitchens.

July 12, 2012|By Mary Rourke, Special to The Times
  • If James Beard was the father of American cooking, Cunningham became its mother, former Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl said.
If James Beard was the father of American cooking, Cunningham became its… (Marion Cunningham )

Marion Cunningham's crusade to preserve the nightly supper hour came of her concern that without it children would never learn table manners or the give and take of dinner conversation. Not only that, she worried that such traditional American dishes as roast chicken, iceberg lettuce salad and strawberry shortcake would become endangered species.

Her devotion to standard American fare made her a venerated figure in the food world whose revised edition of "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," a basic text for home cooks since 1896, brought her philosophy back into the mainstream.

Published in 1979 and revised in 1990, "Fannie Farmer" regained its place as a classic, selling close to 1 million copies, and brought the shy, silver-haired Cunningham wide admiration as a cookbook writer, syndicated columnist and teacher with her own television show.

"Marion Cunningham epitomized good American food," Judith Jones, her longtime editor at Knopf, said in a statement Wednesday. "She was someone who had an ability to take a dish, savor it in her mouth and give it new life. At a time when Americans were embracing all kinds of foreign cuisine, Marion Cunningham's love and respect for American food helped 'The Fannie Farmer Cookbook' once again earn a place in kitchens across America."

Cunningham, who had Alzheimer's disease, died Wednesday at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, Calif., said Clark Wolf, a food consultant and longtime friend. She was 90.

She got her start late in life as a protege of James Beard, the chef and writer revered for championing the American culinary tradition.

"If Beard was the father of American cooking, Cunningham became its mother," former Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl wrote in The Times in 1992, when she was the newspaper's food editor.

In spite of her attachment to familiar foods and simple recipes, Cunningham won the affection of dozens of younger, celebrity chefs whose more exotic tastes leaned toward smoked pheasant and lambs ear lettuce. They considered her a mentor.

"Marion was a traditionalist, but an enlightened traditionalist," said Alice Waters, founder of the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. "She could appreciate every conceivable food, the way she could connect with every conceivable person."

Waters first met Cunningham in 1974, when she brought Beard to dinner at Chez Panisse. Soon afterward, Waters and Cunningham took a Chinese cooking class in San Francisco and later traveled to France and China on food tasting expeditions. When Chez Panisse was getting off the ground, Cunningham pitched in, looking for new talent when a difficult chef stormed out of the kitchen.

Cunningham's own professional life was comparatively calm. Working in the compact kitchen of her ranch house in Walnut Creek, with a vintage electric stove and a refrigerator from Sears, she tested thousands of recipes for her cookbooks and columns, taught introductory classes to adults and prepared simple meals for visitors, many of them food editors and restaurant chefs.

Her fanciest cooking equipment included a large blender, a heavy-duty electric mixer and two waffle irons. She kept the cherry pitters, the newfangled measuring spoons and other gadgets in the garage, because what mattered to her was "not what I cook with but how cooking and food puts me in community with others."

Born Marion Enwright on Feb. 7, 1922, she grew up in Glendale. In 1942 she married Robert Cunningham, whom she had known since kindergarten. He was a lawyer with a taste for canned pork and beans and well-done red meat. She once summed up his culinary range this way: "He doesn't like homemade bread and he doesn't like vegetables. The only green thing he says he likes is money."

During the first years of marriage the Cunninghams lived in a small house near the ocean in Laguna Beach. He served in the Marines; she pumped gas to earn extra money and later managed a service station.

"I always used to think I would own my own station," she said in a 1991 interview with the New York Times. "I know more than most women about cars."

Their modest income as newlyweds encouraged Cunningham's family-style approach to menus. "During the five years we lived in Laguna," she wrote in an article about home entertaining for The Times in 1990, "every friend we knew from our school days arrived to visit (and often to stay). In order to feed this steady stream, I made casseroles, stews, soups and big hearty salads with thick creamy dressings. All good to eat and cheap to make."

Convenience and frozen foods had already begun to appear on store shelves in the 1940s, "but they weren't a convenience to me," she wrote. "I couldn't afford them."

After the war, the Cunninghams built a house in the San Francisco Bay area suburb of Walnut Creek, where they raised their two children and lived together until Robert died in 1988 after years of failing health. Her survivors include two children, Mark and Catherine.

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