Kas Neteler remembers when she first heard of Marion Cunningham. “When I got my first apartment, my mother gave me a copy of Fannie Farmer. She was convinced I’d starve without it.”
How many mothers, fathers, grandparents, godparents and well-meaning aunts and uncles have done the same? Marion Cunningham, who died on July 12 at the age of 90, left us a legacy of straightforward American cooking through her thousands of recipes, hundreds of articles and eight books. But nothing cemented her reputation–or helped Americans get solid, nutritious meals on the table, day after day–like her two comprehensive updates of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.
These fat, comfortable, soup-to-nuts tomes are the books every cook needs in the kitchen. (The most recent edition slimmed down many recipes, put in some contemporary additions, and added a microwave section. Presciently, however, the preserving and pickling section was left intact, rather than being dumped as old-fashioned as it was in the 1997 revision of the equally venerable Joy of Cooking.) No matter how much you rely on takeout pad Thai, or quinoa-and-seitan salad, someday (probably about three years after the birth of your first child) you are going to be hit by a craving to make homemade blueberry muffins, or split-pea soup, or poached eggs, and Fannie Farmer will be there for you, patient and calm, ready to bring you a world of waffles and Thanksgiving gravy and cup custard.
As Kim Severson wrote in A Cooking Kinship, a Chronicle article from 2001 about Cunningham’s longtime friendship with Alice Waters,
“In a way, the women personify an essential truth about how America eats. We wish we shopped and cooked like Waters, but really we cook and shop like Cunningham — if we shop or cook at all.”
Issued in 1979 and 1990, the 12th and 13th editions of this venerable cookbook (first issued in 1896 by Fannie Farmer herself, founder of the Boston Cooking School) didn’t assume that readers knew how to hard-boil an egg, fix a broken hollandaise sauce, or cut up a chicken. But neither did the books talk down to readers, or presume that new cooks would rather rely on the Pillsbury Dough Boy and Hamburger Helper than learn to make biscuits and meatloaf from scratch.
Born in rural Southern California in 1922, Cunningham was a 50-year-old Walnut Creek wife and stay-at-home mother who had battled both agoraphobia and alcoholism when she met venerated cooking teacher and American arbiter of taste James Beard. She took his cooking classes, became his assistant, and turned him on to the charms of a funny little French restaurant in Berkeley, open for just a couple of years, called Chez Panisse. She wasn’t a chef, she was a home cook, who shopped at the supermarket and liked to poke through other shopper’s carts to see what they were cooking. No matter how her pal Alice Waters goaded her, she liked iceberg lettuce and drank black coffee with any meal, even in France. She still remembered the basic training of her high school home-ec classes.
Thus, when longtime cookbook editor Judith Jones gave her the job of revising the Fannie Farmer books, she knew that the new editions had to preserve Fannie Farmer’s culinary heritage of good, plain, feed-the-family recipes, which had grown to encompass over 75 years of American cooking. At the same time, they also had to instruct a new generation of cooks who, perhaps for the first time, weren’t learning to cook alongside Mom, because Mom had put on a blouse with a bow, or a hard hat and overalls, and gone to work. (In elementary school in the 70s, we still had home-ec classes, co-ed by now, as was wood and metal shop. As I recall, though, the curriculum imagined cooking as having the same usefulness as macrame. We shaped pizza out of biscuit mix, made peanut brittle, and were endlessly catechized about the correct way to wash dishes.)
Most importantly, the recipes had to work, to reassure cooks at all levels that they could rely on the big yellow books for any dish or menu. Her recipes might not have been the most adventurous, and they definitely weren’t cutting-edge, but the ingredients were easy to find, the instructions were clear at every step, and the results reliable every time. Frost a birthday cake? Broil a steak? Roast a turkey? Make applesauce? Fannie, or more accurately Marion, was there to tell you. She didn’t show off, but she knew everything you needed to know.
Those 800+ pages of Fannie Farmer became Cunningham’s pedestal. She taught, wrote more books, including the sturdy, reassuring basic-skills book, Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham, spread the gospel of light-as-air yeast-raised waffles (batter made the night before, left to rise on the countertop, then leavened again at the last minute with eggs and baking soda), wrote a longtime home-cooking column for the San Francisco Chronicle, worked as a restaurant consultant, tooled around San Francisco in her beloved Jaguar (bought with an early royalty check), and dined out frequently with friends, including her fellow Chronicle writer Michael Bauer, who took her along on numerous restaurant-reviewing forays.
Over the years, she generously mentored young chefs she believed in, from Zuni Cafe’s Judy Rogers (whom she met when Rogers was cooking at the Union Hotel in Benicia) to Camino’s Russell Moore and Bluestem Brasserie’s James Ormsby. Baker’s Dozen, which she co-founded in 1989, was part pastry laboratory, part support group and coffee klatch for (mostly) professional bakers, especially those writing books or articles for the general public. For her, getting to enjoy the company of family and friends around the table, sharing the everyday moments of life, was the real reason for cooking, and she emphasized this in every book she wrote.
Re-reading The Breakfast Book, which I’ve given (with waffle iron) to every newlywed couple I’ve ever known, I was charmed to discover her voice again, encouraging and surprisingly droll. After pointing out the importance of reconnecting with families at breakfast time, before the busyness of the day takes over, she later acknowledges that
“One of the most blissful escapes is breakfast in bed with something good to read. Breakfast in bed is cozy, quiet, and private. I instantly forget that it was I who fixed the tray.”
Here, preserved and reproducible, are the old-fashioned, early-to-mid-century recipes that might otherwise be lost under the onslaught of GoGurts and Egg McMuffins: the Goldenrod and Featherbed Eggs, Date Nut Bread and Sally Lunn, Red Flannel Hash, Kedgeree, and Indian Pudding. It’s also the home of that famous waffle recipe, whose delicacy and crunch may have less to do with yeast and baking soda than with the full stick of butter melted into the batter. (The recipe can also be found in the 1979 edition of Fannie Farmer.) Her California sensibility comes out with recipes for figs, persimmons, salsa verde (“as zingy and peppery as a mariachi band”), homemade yogurt and granola.
A few years ago, Neteler crossed paths with Cunningham. “I met Marion and told her the story and mentioned I still use my well-worn copy. She gave me a knowing smile and kind words.”
She must have heard that story, or one just like it, hundreds of times over her 40-year career. But it pleased her every time.
Recipe: Yeast-Raised Waffles
This recipe is adapted from The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham. I’ve halved the amounts of butter and yeast called for in the original and suggested a mix of flours to give a little more textural interest to the batter. The slow overnight rise gives a slight sourdough tang to the waffles, making them a good choice with savory accompaniments like bacon or sausage.
Yield: 8 standard-size waffles
Prep Time: 10 minutes, plus 8 hours’ rising time
Cook Time: 8-10 minutes
Total Time: 18-20 minutes, plus 8 hours’ rising time
1/2 cup warm water
1 1/4 tsp (half a package) dry yeast
2 cups milk, warmed
4 tbsp butter, melted
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1/3 cup cornmeal
1/4 tsp baking soda
1. In a large mixing bowl (to give the batter room to rise), pour in the warm water and sprinkle in the yeast. Let stand to dissolve for a few minutes.
2. Add the milk, butter, salt, sugar, and flours, beating quickly until smooth and blended. (Cunningham attacks the lumps with a hand-held rotary, or egg, beater, a kitchen implement that’s probably as archaic for the under-30 set as a rotary phone.)
3. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand overnight at room temperature.
4. Preheat your waffle iron. Just before cooking the waffles, beat in eggs and baking soda. Use about 1/2 cup of batter per waffle. Bake until golden. Serve immediately.