Marion Cunningham dies at 90; icon of American cooking


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.

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.