Marion Cunningham shifted food focus back to the home. She encouraged home cooks and provided multiple formats to get her point across in educating the masses.
In other words, Marion Cunningham was “all in” when it came to food and education. Those aren’t empty words. Marion Cunningham had her phone number publicly listed in the phone directory.
If anyone had a question, they were welcome to call and ask her.
But Marion wasn’t always a food guide. For many years, while raising two kids, she suffered from alcoholism and agoraphobia, or a crippling fear of leaving her home.
Marion Enwright was born February 11, 1922 in Los Angeles, California to Joseph and Maryann (Spelta) Enwright. Her mother wasn’t in the best of health, described as “frail,” and her father also became an invalid and an alcoholic, shares this SF Gate article.
Marion’s grandmother sounds like a woman I would have gotten along with well.
Like Marion, I am also 1/4 Italian. My own Italian grandmother’s “spaghetti gravy” (a phrase you’ll hear among Chicago Italians) made everything better.
Even today, I make it when I need a pick-me-up or am feeling nostalgic (always with large meatballs, and with neck bones when I can find them). There’s nothing that quite comes close.
“We used to have meatloaf every Wednesday night when I was growing up. In fact, everyone in our neighborhood in a small town in southern California had meatloaf every Wednesday. And many of us thought it was better than the roast beef we had on Sunday. It was the same way in most of America then, and it was comforting to know just what you were going to have for dinner.”
She didn’t care much for her mother’s cooking.
“My mother followed the government pamphlets on nutrition that she sent away for, and paid no attention to taste,” Marion wrote in an earlier (now pay walled) LA Times article quoted by Laurie Ochoa (‘Fannie Farmer’s’ Marion Cunningham and Her Never-Built Fat Farm, July 12, 2012).
Marion married lawyer Robert Cunningham in 1942. She was 21. They had two children, Catherine and Mark. But Marion didn’t have an easy time.
It must have been frustrating and lonely to spend time cooking and not have your own spouse appreciate what you’ve done. But Marion had other guinea pigs to test on, other than her children.
At this time, cookbooks were beginning to include recipes making quick meals with convenience foods. It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that convenience foods in cookbooks and sponsored endorsements for such things became common.
Yes, Marion enjoyed cooking. It wasn’t a sunshiny good time. Her husband wasn’t an easy man to live with — he was also an alcoholic.
It would have been hard life for their two kids, dealing with two alcoholics in the home. “Hard” is likely an understatement. I wish I knew more about their lives and how things went for them later. I’d like to think they broke the cycle, but Internet searches led me nowhere. Dead ends.
Marion’s fear of transportation must have been so hard for her family. Add in the alcoholism and times would have been tough indeed. But somehow, Marion pulled herself together, at least in terms of alcohol. Accounts abound of how much Marion loved a cup of good strong black coffee.
But her life changed in 1972. A friend invited Marion to see James Beard, Marion’s favorite cookbook author.
Fournou’s Ovens was in business for 35 years, closing in 2008. In Marion’s time, it was a foothold. She loved to teach others how to cook. That two-week class changed the course of Marion’s life. She had a purpose she couldn’t find before.
Marion’s friendship with James Beard led to another unexpected turn in her burgeoning career. He mentioned her name to Judith Jones.
Editor Judith Jones was responsible a decade before for taking The Diary of Anne Frank out of the rejection pile and getting it printed in English — and for publishing Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Judith needed someone to revise The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.
Fannie Farmer Cookbook
Fannie’s last revision was published in 1914; by the time she died the following year, more than 360,000 copies of the book had been sold. By the sixth edition of 1936, a total of 1,736,000 copies had been printed; the the eighth edition of 1946, that number had reached 2,531,000 copies, shared The Recipe Link.
Not everyone agreed with the deliciousness of the recipes inside. Book reviewer Michael Field wrote a scathing review of the 1965 Fanny Farmer edition, the first edition not written by a blood relation to Fannie. In it, Michael pointed out the many flaws.
“Coquille St. Jacques” lacked scallops — and “coquille” is French for scallops, for starters. There were plenty of other errors, from cooking times to ingredients (or lack thereof) to procedure.
Robert H. Fetridge, Jr., the editor of Little, Brown and Co., responsible for the book, wrote a response letter to the editors. Robert tried to downplay any errors, but Michael wasn’t having it. Michael added more detail in his response, with perhaps the best blow of all:
Michael Fields wasn’t the only person to think the current state of the cookbook was a mess. Let’s look at it another way.
“The heirs of Farmer — who died in 1915, and, though she subscribed to the home-ec lunacies of her era, at least had a good palate — had steadily desecrated the cookbook over the decades, introducing more and more frozen and canned ingredients and adding nasty recipes for gelatin molds and a guacamole made with ketchup,” wrote David Kamp in The United States of Arugula (2006, Page 265).
Fannie Farmer needed an update, if not a complete and total overhaul. The book needed to get back to its roots of good home cooking, while including modern foods, methods, and appliances, to once again become a dependable, trustworthy guide. Judith Jones agreed that Marion would be a good fit. Marion, however, wasn’t convinced. At least, not at first.
James Beard became Marion’s big cheerleader.
As with any new project that fits your skills, but isn’t exactly what you’ve already done, it takes time to figure out your angle, how to begin, and to find your groove. It can be almost paralyzing, especially undertaking such a task as rewriting a classic cookbook with hundreds of recipes.
If she didn’t do well, Marion could expect to receive the same horrendous reviews as the previous editor.
For almost five years, Marion Cunningham tested and tasted and added in some recipes of her own. When the 12th edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook hit the shelves of bookstores everywhere in 1979 — it sold faster than any other version.
Marion’s passion became teaching other people how to cook. She wasn’t teaching fancy French food or elaborate gourmet spreads either. Marion focused on real people cooking real things meant to be shared around the family dining table.
Finding Her Niche
Somehow, Marion found the time to write articles for several publications. “Always emphasizing the basics and encouraging beginners, she is a regular contributor to Gourmet and Food & Wine Magazine and writes a weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times,” reads PBS’ Meet the Chefs of Baking with Julia.
Her approach wasn’t just for adults. Yes, she had adults in mind when she penned Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham, but she didn’t stop there. She got kids in the kitchen, teaching classes for both adults and for kids.
She created Cooking with Children: 15 Lessons for Children, Age 7 and Up, Who Really Want to Learn to Cook, with clear directions, easy-to-follow directions and just enough recipes to keep a new young cook from feeling overwhelmed.
She even tried to get folks baking again, with The Fannie Farmer Baking Book, another shining example of writing that doesn’t talk down to its novice target.
I’ve mentioned The San Francisco Chronicle cookbook on here before. This cookbook offers a glimpse into the dining scene at the time, why recipes work, and features a slew of popular food chefs of the period.
You get access to Marion Cunningham’s tested recipes. Marion was always testing and testing.
Then came TV.
Marion created more than 70 episodes. It didn’t matter if she was actively writing a cookbook or filming a show, food was never far from Marion’s mind.
While the video above happens to be “Baking with Julia” and not Marion’s show, I love this video anyway.
You can almost feel Julia inwardly cringe and stiffen at the thought of using your finger to push off the extra flour while measuring. Truth is, I have done the same thing. Not often (I keep a butter knife in each plastic container), but I did just do the same thing this morning with granulated sugar.
I suspect most of us home cooks have moments like that.
Marion Cunningham was one of us and she didn’t feel like she had to hide it. I doubt most of us would have had the guts to do such a thing with Julia Child watching.
The Baker’s Dozen
Can you even imagine? What a wonderful time they must have had sharing recipes and chit-chatting. All of it. No wonder the group grew so fast.
What a great memory. I’m sure it had its frustrating moments, and working together with a bunch of other professionals could be complicated, especially if everyone has their own “best” way to go about things. But, it would be immensely interesting.
Just Like the Rest of Us
Marion was one of us. She loved iceberg lettuce, a food item that made her friend and celebrity chef, Alice Waters, weep. Marion enjoyed the grocery store. Sure, she’d pop into the local farmer’s market, but she liked heading to the store. It wasn’t just for shopping: Marion was spying.
In a way, it’s funny. You and I understand the appeal of two waffle makers, right? Anyone who has raised a family or cooked for groups of friends understands. Just like with pancakes, it takes so long to get through making the things.
If you have TWO waffle makers, you are done in half the time — and everyone gets a warm “hot-off-the-press” waffle (as I say in our house).
She loved to go to the supermarket and peer into the baskets of startled strangers, whom she would then interview about their cooking skills. Indeed, she made it her life’s work to champion home cooking and preserve the family supper table, according to Kim Severson (Marion Cunningham, Home Cooking Advocate, Dies at 90, The New York Times, July 11, 2012).
I’m guilty of being a shopping cart snoop. I am always peering into people’s carts, and even though I sometimes want to tell someone that they don’t need that box of Hamburger Helper and can make pasta themselves in a snap with leftovers for tomorrow — I keep mum.
I’m no Marion Cunningham.
Marion was still writing cookbooks into her eighties.
Time spent around the dinner table is where healthy relationships are formed. It’s when you have a chance to go over the events of the day, to laugh, to reconnect with who should be among the most important people in your life.
Marion learned that lesson and worked hard to pass it on to the rest of us.
Marion Cunningham’s Legacy
It’s no wonder Marion Cunningham earned awards for her work. She was involved in so much for so long. Diligent. Persistent.
In 1993, Marion received the Grand Dame award from Les Dames d’Escoffier “in recognition and appreciation of her extraordinary achievement and contribution to the culinary arts.” In 1994, she was named Scholar-in-Residence by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Marion Cunningham was awarded the James Beard Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2003.
Marion Cunningham died on July 11, 2012 in Walnut Creek, California (complications from Alzheimer’s disease).
Marion was a multi cookbook author, a syndicated columnist, and teacher with her own television show in a time when not everyone had their own TV show. I will leave you with this useful list of tips Marion provided to her cooking students, as told by one of her students back in 1999.
Articles by Marion Cunningham
For all the things Marion wrote, I can find so few available to read online. How unfortunate.
Read Marion Cunningham articles online today:
- The Trip of the Iceberg, Saveur, January 23, 2007.
- Biscuits Forever, Saveur, September 6, 2007.
- The Shaker Table, Saveur, October 17, 2007.
Cookbooks by Marion Cunningham
Marion got a late start. She found her passion at 51 and pursued it with a relentless spirit. Yes, she was nervous about leaving her state for the first time, and, later, editing a cookbook — but she DID IT ANYWAY.
Look where it led.
Don’t let fear hold you back either.
Take Marion’s lead. It is never too late.