I had worked with the late cookbook legend Marion Cunningham for several years before I actually met her. She was a columnist for The Times back in the 1990s, and I was one of her editors. Because she lived in the Bay Area, our conversations were mainly on the telephone, but I thought I had a pretty good mental image of what she would be like -- sweet, open, down-home.
Marion, who died Wednesday at age 90, was, after all, Fannie Farmer: “The Boston Cooking School Cookbook” and all of that, your go-to source for things like chicken pot pie and banana bread. But more than that, there was her voice over the line, so bright it practically crinkled: “Oh, hello, dear. It’s so good to hear from you. How have you been? Was that column all right? Oh, gosh, I just never know.”
Finally, on a trip to San Francisco, we arranged to have dinner with our mutual friend Michael Bauer, the restaurant critic and food editor for the San Francisco Chronicle. I met Michael on the sidewalk, and we waited for Marion to arrive.
Up pulled a long gold Jaguar, and out of it climbed one of the most stylish older women I’d ever seen. Not fashionable -- nothing flashy -- but tall and slim and dressed just-so, her silver hair tied close. There was certainly nothing old-fashioned or matronly about her.
We walked into the restaurant, where Marion greeted half the wait staff and then all of the chefs by name. That was Marion Cunningham: one part America’s grandma, one part culinary godfather.
She was the eminence grise of the Bay Area restaurant scene. Chefs who were pondering their next career move would call her up for advice. When she thought somebody needed a little help, she was there (she’s the one who took James Beard to Chez Panisse for the first time, launching the restaurant and her friend Alice Waters). If you had a question about restaurant real estate, she could give you the full lineage of almost any place between Napa and San Jose. She knew where all the bodies were buried and who owned the ground above them.
In some ways, it might seem odd that those two sides -- the dining sophisticate and the cooking traditionalist -- could coexist so seamlessly. But they did. American home cooking has had no fiercer advocate than Cunningham. She loved iceberg lettuce beyond all reason. A good bowl of vegetable soup could send her into rhapsodies. Sure, she might dine out every night in some of the most glamorous restaurants in the world, but she also knew the value of a well-prepared biscuit.
More than that, she knew the importance of what that biscuit represented -- how meals bring people together, how time spent at the table cements relationships. Maybe because her own family was somewhat chaotic -- she was quite open about having been an alcoholic into her 50s -- she would argue all the more passionately the necessity of breaking bread together.
Granted, her “Fannie Farmer” books are landmarks, but my favorite Marion Cunningham cookbooks have always been the smaller, plainer volumes. I love her “Supper Book,” with its homey stews and soups and baked goods.
But if I had to pick a favorite, it would be her “Breakfast Book,” maybe because that’s the meal that best exemplifies what Marion was about: delicious, simple food served to those people who mean the most to us.
Of course, it also might be my favorite because it contains the single best recipe for waffles I have ever tasted. I’m not alone. Of all Marion’s recipes, her yeast-raised waffles are probably the best-known; they’ve probably been reprinted in a couple of dozen cookbooks.
And when you think about it, there aren’t many better legacies someone can leave.