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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

The clear, blue eyes and inviting manner that defined Marion Cunningham's public image in later years hardly suggested the difficulties she faced as a young wife and mother. Through her 30s, she struggled with alcoholism and phobias that made it impossible for her to ride in elevators, airplanes and nearly every other form of transportation.

"I couldn't even have children until I found a hospital with a maternity ward on the ground floor," she once said.

Friends said it was a testament to her strong will that Cunningham stopped drinking completely and got over her fears to the point where she traveled the world to quench her curiosity about regional foods.

Her indomitable will showed itself in small ways too. When Cunningham and Waters traveled in Paris, Waters saw it flare up in a Paris restaurant.

"Marion insisted on ordering a cup of coffee before dinner," Waters said. "I whispered, 'Marion, do as the French, it's coffee after dinner.' But she would not hear of it." She also insisted on speaking English. Not a single attempt at "merci" crossed her lips. "I'd say to her, 'Marion, it's just to be polite.' But for her, it was, 'thank you.' "

Even close friends rarely talked with Cunningham about her personal battles. "For her fears, Marion got professional help," Waters said. "But with her alcoholism, it was more a matter of her deciding she'd had enough. She wasn't willing to live that way anymore."

In 1972, at the age of 45, Cunningham went to Seaside, Ore., to take a cooking class with Beard. For the rest of her life she considered it a moral victory: She had overcome her fear of travel.

"It was my first trip outside California and it was a big deal," Cunningham later recalled. Love of food got her off the ground. "James Beard was my favorite cookbook author," she said.

The two westerners, both advocates of American cookery, struck up a friendship. Several years later Beard asked Cunningham to be his assistant. She worked with him on his cookbooks and traveled the country with him.

Not long after they met, he recommended her to Jones, who was his editor at Knopf. She was looking for someone to revise "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," an outdated classic that combined how-to tips with nearly 2,000 recipes.

"Unbeknownst to me," Cunningham later said of that conversation.

"I didn't really want the job," she admitted after her revised edition was published in 1979. "But I knew James was trying to help me. I prayed I wouldn't get the job." It took her five years to test all the recipes. Along the way, she added suggestions for how to use a microwave oven and a food processor — tools unknown when Fannie Farmer, the New England cooking instructor, published "The Boston Cooking School Cook Book," nearly 100 years earlier. (The book evolved into the version that Cunningham revised.)

Throughout the project, Beard remained Cunningham's faithful supporter. "If I was being indecisive," she recalled, "James would say, 'Remember, you're Fannie Farmer.' "

Despite his encouragement, Cunningham was plagued by fear of failure. "I kept thinking, 'If I ever get through this and I'm not humiliated and it's OK, I'll be lucky,' " she said.

She did get through it, partly by swimming every day in her outdoor pool and walking her golden Labrador retriever. She went on to write six other books on baking, breakfasts, suppers and cooking with children. Her success enabled her to buy a Jaguar, which she drove every night into her 80s to dine out with friends in San Francisco.

After years teaching grown-up beginners her skills, she wrote a book for them on learning to cook. She saw the need for one because her students couldn't follow such typical recipe instructions as "blanch," "fold" and "form peaks."

Her common-sense, authoritative style and engaging manner had a memorable effect.

"She walked into a room and there was a hush," Ellen Rose, who owned the Cook's Library bookstore in Los Angeles, recalled of the author's appearance there. "People were in awe."

"There's always a demand for her books," Rose added. "She's kept pure American cooking alive. In the '80s, American food was fashionable. In the late '90s, people got into comfort foods. After Sept. 11, 2001, they started cooking at home more often. Marion Cunningham's books fit all those niches."

Nothing could have made Cunningham happier than a food trend that brought people together around the dinner table. She believed that home-cooked meals for family and friends are the crux of a civilized society and warned parents about the hidden cost of fast-food meals eaten on the run.

"Young people don't know how to participate in dinner table conversation," she told The Times in 1999. "They haven't learned the art of telling stories, recounting their day or sharing food."

By the end of her life, Cunningham's honorary awards formed peaks of praise around her. In spring 2003, she received a particularly meaningful prize, the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 2004 she published her last book, "Lost Recipes," a collection of unfussy, trustworthy dishes, such as Bess Truman's Ozark pudding. She hoped the recipes would convince a new generation that "bringing ready-cooked meals home is not the same as cooking something in your own kitchen ... where you fill the house with good cooking smells, and where you all share in a single dish, taking a helping and passing the platter on to your neighbor. Nothing," she wrote, "can replace that."

Rourke is a former Times staff writer.

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