Marion Cunningham, one of the great names in American home cooking who famously rewrote the Fannie Farmer Cookbook in 1979 to much acclaim, has died of complications from Alzheimer’s near her longtime home in Walnut Creek, California. She was 90. Cunningham was a champion of knowledgeable but no-fuss cooking, and led the way for figures like Martha Stewart and Christopher Kimball in establishing authoritative, well-tested, and easy-to-follow recipes and tips in the era after Julia Child introduced America to French techniques. She came late in life to food writing, taking a class with James Beard at age 50 and ultimately becoming Beard’s assistant and joining the food elite of the seventies.
After publishing The Breakfast Book in 1988, she was named editor of the twelfth edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, and was the author of its thirteenth edition, as well as the Fannie Farmer Baking Book. In recent years, she had been a syndicated food columnist, with a regular column in the San Francisco Chronicle that also appeared elsewhere. (See one of the last columns she wrote last year, featuring her classic waffle recipe.) Chronicle critic Michael Bauer wrote of her, "She gave legitimacy to home cooking. She took what many people would say was housewife food and really gave it respect by force of her own personality."
Cunningham and longtime friend Alice Waters — whom Cunningham arguably helped put on the map by bringing Beard to Chez Panisse for his first meal, causing his subsequent raves in the national press — had a famous squabble over lettuce that epitomizes some of the division that remains in the American food landscape. Waters, of course, loves her local, organic baby gems and heirloom French lettuces, disdaining the scourge of iceberg. Cunningham, meanwhile, loved iceberg lettuce, and championed it. Nevertheless, the two women remained friends for 40 years.
Cunningham was also a critic of the increasing trend of preprepared meals in supermarkets, seeing them as another step toward the demise of home cooking. In her introduction to Lost Recipes, Cunningham wrote, "Home cooking is a catalyst that brings people together. … Home kitchens, despite the increase in designer appliances and cabinetry, are mostly quiet and empty today. Strangers are preparing much of our food. And our supermarkets, which once considered restaurants and fast-food places the enemy, have joined the trend by enlarging their delis and offering ready-to-eat food they call ‘home-replacement meals.’ But bringing ready-cooked meals home is not the same as cooking in your own kitchen, where you are in control of the ingredients you use, 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 can replace that."
Marion Cunningham, An Advocate for Home Cooking, Dies at 90 [NYT]
American cooking legend Marion Cunningham dies at 90 [SF Chron]
Related: A Cooking Kinship / Marion Cunningham and Alice Waters on friendship and lettuce [SF Chron]
Honoring an icon: Marion Cunningham is 90 today [Inside Scoop]