Originally published July 7, 1999
Outside, it sure looks and feels like summer. The baked hills rolling up toward Mount Diablo shimmer with the heat of bread just out of the oven. Youths in T-shirts on horseback lope lazily up the narrow lane down the slope. If a meat thermometer were stuck into the front yard, the day would have been just about ready to slice and serve.
But inside Marion Cunningham's refrigerator, it sure looks like the day after Thanksgiving. The fridge is stuffed with holiday leftovers - turkey, sage dressing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin and pecan pies, steamed persimmon pudding, and all the other traditional trimmings.
"We had a photo shoot here yesterday for the Thanksgiving issue of Family Circle," explains Cunningham, sliding a welcoming plate of buttery cookies across the tile counter separating kitchen and dining room, the physical and spiritual center of the house.
That's the life of a popular food writer, anticipating and adapting to holidays and seasons months before they arrive, preparing stories and coordinating photos for early deadlines. The day before, nine people gathered about her dining table, forcing themselves into Thanksgiving conviviality even as the temperature neared 100 degrees.
Marion Cunningham just may be the most popular food writer in the country these days. Her latest cookbook, "Learning To Cook With Marion Cunningham" (Alfred A. Knopf, $29.95), published in May, is being well-received critically and commercially. Her cooking columns are being picked up by a growing number of newspapers. She is chummy with the editors of several top food magazines. And she's already at work on her next book, which will focus on how to make the most of leftovers.
"That's the heart of home cooking, using leftovers," says Cunningham, a tall and lean 77 with a gracious manner, focused gaze and easy laugh. On this day she is dressed for market - chambray shirt a couple of shades lighter than her dazzling blue eyes, pewter hair tugged back into tight bun, ropy gold earrings catching the summer sun sweeping through her long and low ranch house. "That's what the new book doesn't have, but it would have been too much for one book."Comfortably, even proudly, Marion Cunningham is a home cook. Though she consults for restaurants and steadily turns out cookbooks, she doesn't aspire to be recognized as a celebrity chef. "I'm a home cook; I want to be known as that," she says often.
The home kitchen has been the setting for all her books since she popped up on the American cooking scene 20 years ago with her first revision of "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," a seminal American cooking manual published originally in 1896 as "The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book."
Since then, she's updated "Fannie Farmer" once more, and published a string of cookbooks centered on one or another aspect of cooking - breakfast, supper, baking.
All the books gently take readers by the hand and lead them back into the kitchen, a theme she tackled with heightened concern and vigor a few years ago with "Cooking With Children," and to which she returns with "Learning To Cook With Marion Cunningham," a companion manual for adults who have virtually no knowledge or experience at cooking.
Judith Jones, Cunningham's editor since the inception of the "Fannie Farmer" project 25 years ago, credits the consistent success of her books to Cunningham's enthusiasm and sincerity, and to her fondness for uncomplicated foods.
"She's a real home cook. She understands how good simple food is. She knows you don't need to load up a dish with 20 ingredients for something to taste good," says Jones by phone from her summer home in Vermont. "Today so many cookbooks are done by professional chefs. It's like going to the theater, where they are expected to put on a performance and do something novel, but that doesn't translate to home cooking. So it's a relief to put your hands on a workable book, with foods you really want to do at home."
Alice Waters, owner/chef of the highly regarded Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, similarly sums up the impact of her longtime friend: "I think she speaks to a lot of people in this country because she is so unpretentious and talks about unintimidating food. A lot of people find the whole concept of cooking a sort of mystery in this day and age. They haven't had any help from their parents or grandparents. They are looking for somebody who can help them learn how to eat and how to cook. She cares a whole lot about every person, and she is trying to think about dishes they would like to eat and cook for themselves."
When Cunningham and Jones began to mull over the project that eventually became "Learning To Cook," they put together a 35-question form about dining and eating habits. Jones distributed it to colleagues; Cunningham handed it out to acquaintances at her swim club, library and so forth.
One question was: How often do you sit at a home table with others and share food?
Cunningham was shocked by the replies, many of which said Christmas, Thanksgiving and an occasional birthday were the only times family and friends got together to eat.
"Everyone has a separate agenda. They eat by themselves."
She fervently believes that Americans, with their fractured schedules, contentment with fast food and preoccupation with TV, video games, the Internet and other diversions, are losing something elusive but crucial in no longer sitting down to share a meal.
"My ultimate goal is to encourage more communal experiences in our lives, either with people we're close with or with new friends, and the setting most conducive to this is the sharing of food around the table," Cunningham says. "More than other situations, eating together is conducive to some positive connection. It takes away your defenses."
She's fretted about American alienation from the dinner table for years, but started to give her concern more attention when she taught a series of cooking classes for children in 1995 and 1996.
"They all liked to take food home to share with their friends and family. They all did this, without exception. I couldn't get over that," she says.
She discovered other differences when she subsequently convened a series of classes for adults whom she recruited for their lack of experience or knowledge in the kitchen.
"The children didn't think of the consequences. They loved the magic of cooking, the way it transforms things into something else," Cunningham recalls. "The adults couldn't have been more different. They had so many fears - that they were going to fail, that they wouldn't be happy with the results. They were so timid about it."
Several dreaded going to the supermarket, confessing they were bewildered by the choices just among the rice.
"I'd flunked my computer class the month before," Cunningham says. "I just had to give it up. My fears were unrealistic, but that's the way I felt, and I saw that same kind of fear (among the adult students) at the supermarket."
One student following a recipe that called for soft butter gave up in frustration when she couldn't find "soft butter" in the supermarket dairy case.
Another student, following directions to toss sliced apples in a bowl to season them for a pie, stood on one side of a table and flung the fruit into a bowl on the other side.
"What was in your mind when you did that?" Cunningham recalls asking him.
His reply: "I don't know anything of cooking. I thought they might have to aerate."
"These were intelligent people, they weren't dumb, they were just empty of information," Cunningham says.
Gradually, her students grew adept at cooking, their excitement building with each successful dish. The classes ended, but several still convene for monthly potlucks.
Besides the enduring friendships, "Learning To Cook" grew out of that experience, with Cunningham concisely spelling out helpful directions in each recipe.
Those long, strong fingers in most of the 150 instructive photos that accompany her recipes and commentary, incidentally, are Cunningham's, a touch that Jones insisted upon as her way to help preserve the author's personality.
Cunningham, born in Los Angeles, grew up in a family that enjoyed cooking. She assisted and mimicked her Italian mother, but didn't pursue cooking professionally until relatively late in life. During World War II she worked in a Walnut Creek service station while her husband was in the service. She loved it, and saw herself owning a station after the war. "I changed the oil, I cleaned and reset sparkplugs. I thought I'd buy my own station, but when my husband complained that no matter how much I washed I still smelled like 40-weight oil, I gave it up."
She's lived in the same Walnut Creek house for 45 years, remodeling the kitchen just once. (She and her late husband, Robert Cunningham, a trial lawyer, raised quarter horses on the ranch. Two handsome saddles rest on frames in her living room, but now she rides only "a horse my own age.")
Her kitchen is comfortable and pragmatically arranged but not especially large or extensively appointed. In contrast to most professional cooks, she uses an electric range, putting off the installation of gas lines because it would mean another disruptive remodeling.
When she was 45, her son Mark bought her a plane ticket to Portland, and enrolled her in a cooking class at Seaside. Though she was afflicted with agoraphobia so crippling she often couldn't leave the house, the teacher was someone she so admired she forced herself to attend: James Beard.
Beard also was taken with her, and the next year asked if she would become his assistant, a stint that lasted 11 years, taking her about the United States and to Europe several times.
Beard was indulgent and volatile, but what she remembers most fondly of him was "his wonderful democratic view of the food world." He liked all food, or at least he liked to sample and learn of all food. "To him, good is good, whether it be a hot dog or blinis with caviar. No matter what it was, he'd always ask, "How does it taste?' "
In 1972, unbeknownst to Cunningham, Beard recommended her to his editor, Judith Jones, then looking for a nonprofessional cook to tackle the daunting task of updating "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook."
When Jones summoned her to New York for an interview, Cunningham prayed she wouldn't get the job. "I only went because James Beard would have been mad if I didn't go."
When Cunningham hadn't heard from Jones for five weeks after the interview, she began to relax, figuring she didn't get the job. But then Jones called with the assignment. Her life, as James Beard had predicted - to this day she invariably refers to him as "James Beard" - was transformed.
Cunningham shops and cooks almost daily, though she eats out five nights a week, often accompanying San Francisco Chronicle food editor and restaurant critic Michael Bauer as he visits restaurants.
"It's interesting to see what a chef and what a restaurant thinks is good," Cunningham says. "When you go to a restaurant, you're inside somebody's dream, seeing what they wish they could find in a restaurant."
When asked to gauge her own impact on the way America cooks and eats, she laughs and says she has no idea. Where the country is headed gastronomically is impossible to gauge, and whether home cooking will revive remains to be seen, she remarks. She even fears that her books, and others that try to tempt Americans to take up cooking, may become obsolete.
"Cooking is satisfying on so many levels," Cunningham says. "It's a gift, and so is sharing recipes. I believe in recipes, because they draw people together, providing a sense of place and belonging. I hate to think we'll lose that."
Marion Cunningham on ...
What really gets her appetite going: "I really love vanilla ice cream. I make a lot of potato and leek soup. I love cinnamon toast; I'm going to try to get that back on the table. And slices of angel food cake buttered and toasted. It amazes people how good it is. I got it from James Beard."
Junk food she likes: "I like Snickers, but are they junk food? I think they're so good I hate to call them junk food. And the hamburgers and french fries at the Wendy's on Monumental Boulevard (in Walnut Creek), especially at noon, when they're at their best."
What's always in her refrigerator or freezer: "Steak. A tri-tip roast, for when someone shows up unexpectedly. Eggs are pretty wonderful, especially scrambled or in an omelet with slices of avocado and sour cream; they're meant to be together. And tortillas - corn and flour - which I like to fill with salad."
What's always in her cupboard: "Campbell's tomato soup. Beans. I always have an enormous amount of Best Foods mayonnaise. And I love this spinoff - Dijonnaise - mayonnaise and mustard together. Canned tomato sauces and diced tomatoes, especially the Muir brand; their cans are lined with plastic or something, so you don't get a metallic taste."
The modern kitchen tool she finds almost indispensable: "The mini food processor, for quick things. I don't use the large food processor much anymore."
Foods she doesn't like: "I don't think there are any. But I'm not crazy about tarragon. I like it if it is moderately used. So often it is so powerfully used you don't know what you are eating."