2003 Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient: Marion Cunningham

Marion and Jim

2003 Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient: Marion Cunningham

By Kim Severson

Have you had a waffle in Marion Cunningham’s kitchen? Some of the biggest names in food have, driving through the hills east of San Francisco to the low-slung house on an acre of land where Cunningham has lived for 42 years. They sit at her kitchen table, near a wall of snapshots that tell the story of a culinary life: there’s Ruth Reichl holding a baby, a boyishly young Chuck Williams, Edna Lewis sitting in the sun, MFK and Julia, and James Beard goofing off as a teenager.

People journey to Cunningham’s house to eat pepper bacon, gossip, and watch one of America’s most famous cooks pour thin, yeast-leavened batter into a pair of waffle irons. She uses an old recipe, one she discovered when she first revised the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.

Going to Marion’s for waffles has become almost a badge of honor for some of the best professional chefs and food writers in the country. But for Cunningham, the informal gatherings are simply an extension of what she has been preaching for much of her cooking career: sharing simple, delicious food around a family table is the most important thing in life.

She fills her table with neighbors, old friends, and young people who are hungry to learn to cook. It is not a stretch to imagine that James Beard, with whom Cunningham worked side by side for 11 years and who ate those waffles, would be pleased.

“She is carrying on the legacy of James Beard,” says San Francisco Chronicle food editor and restaurant critic Michael Bauer, one of the people who nominated Cunningham for this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award. “She gives a strong voice to the home cook in a cooking world that is increasingly chef driven—and she does it with wit, wisdom, and great humility.”

Cunningham, who keeps current on food trends by driving into San Francisco to eat five nights a week, has a natural media presence. She had her own television show for a time, and shows up regularly in food articles and at seminars. She goes to the local supermarket every day just to see how people are shopping. Through classes and books like Cooking with Children and Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham, she has introduced countless people to the kitchen with her patient and folksy, but determined, approach.

Cunningham views the dinner table as the modern tribal fire—the place where stories are shared, families are created, and culture is passed on. And she’s fought to protect it as fewer and fewer families eat together.

“Today, strangers cook most of the food we eat,” she said. “If you stop to think about it, people are living like they are in motels. They get fast food and take it home and turn on the TV. We need to sit, facing people, with great regularity, so we are making an exchange and are civilized. We learn such simple, basic life lessons at the dinner table. If you’re handed a platter and take everything off, you are not leaving anything for others.”

Says Chez Panisse proprietor Alice Waters, who has been a friend almost from the day in early 1974 when Cunningham brought James Beard into Waters’s struggling little Berkeley restaurant, “I think she gets it exactly right. She’s talking about the good feelings that come from sharing food at the table. It’s not about fueling yourself. It’s about connecting as human beings. That’s a terribly important ritual that is missing in our lives.”

What makes Cunningham so special is more than the straightforward cooking reflected in her books or her fight to preserve the family table. She’s probably the kindest, best-connected, and most supportive person in the food business.

“She has been one of the hearts of this whole food revolution,’’ says Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, who in her memoir, Tender at the Bone, writes lovingly about how Cunningham served as both a personal and a professional guide when Reichl was a new food writer. “She’s like the den mother of the food movement. She’s the way we all keep connected to each other.’’

Colman Andrews, editor in chief of Saveur magazine, says Cunningham isn’t as well known to the public as she is to members of the food community, but her contribution has been enduring and generous. “When she runs across somebody she thinks is promising, she’ll go around saying nice things about that person to all of her friends. And we all listen. She’s been doing it for so long, we’ve all been touched by her one way or another.”

Cunningham, who turned 81 in February, dismisses the notion of a lifetime achievement award with a smile. “Well, dear,” she said, “I don’t know how they can give it to me for my lifetime. The first 50 years were such a flop.”

Cunningham’s food career didn’t begin in earnest until she turned 50. That was in 1972. She was a Walnut Creek housewife with two teenagers and a high-powered malpractice attorney for a husband. To the outside world, she might have looked like a cliché: a middle-aged woman who barely had a high school degree, no career to speak of, and a family that was drifting away.

Cunningham also carried an internal burden. She had such a severe case of an anxiety disorder called agoraphobia that she was terrified even to go across the Bay Bridge. As a salve, a friend suggested a two-week road trip to Seaside, Oregon, so they could take a cooking class from James Beard, who had decided to extend his classes to Oregon, where he’d grown up. Beard’s cookbooks had long been Cunningham’s favorites. “I liked the food and the results when I made them. It was that simple.”

Agoraphobia wasn’t the only demon haunting Cunningham. A few years before she took the class with Beard, she realized that she increasingly used alcohol to cope, and she had stopped drinking. She also gave up cigarettes. Then she took up swimming, something she still does every day.

The gripping fear of travel and her panic attacks would be the last hurdles she would need to overcome. So with the help of her friend, she forced herself to get in a car and go to Oregon. She had never been out of California.

The class was a wonderful distraction. For the first time in many years, she felt a sense of power. She felt hope. Beard took to her immediately and asked her to be his assistant. The two began a relationship that rocketed Cunningham into a life she could never have imagined. She helped him get established teaching at the Stanford Court Hotel on Nob Hill, and she took immediately to the San Francisco cooking scene. Cunningham also drove regularly to Oregon to help him teach, sometimes taking along Chuck Williams, who was getting started with his kitchenware company, Williams-Sonoma. Although Cunningham didn’t know it at the time, she was helping to nurture the seeds of what would become America’s great food revolution. And she was keeping Beard together.

Reichl describes it as “one of the great odd marriages in this food world.” Cunningham took care of Beard, and he took care of her. “Their relationship was so sweet and so protective. It really was a kind of mutual support thing.”

Cunningham’s break came when James Beard passed her name on to legendary editor Judith Jones, who was looking for someone to update the classic Fannie Farmer Cookbook.

“It was really a gift out of the blue,” Cunningham said. The only problem was, she didn’t think she had a bit of skill. Oh, she could cook. Cooking had always been something that comforted her. She learned it early on, first watching her father and Italian immigrant mother and grandmother struggle to feed a family during the Depression, later trying to make a home from the small salary her Marine Corps husband brought in, and, finally, as a mother of two.

But write? “I barely made it out of high school. I never paid attention to my teachers,” she said. “At the time, I thought, ‘I don’t know where to put periods or commas. How can I do a book?’” But she did, and the new Fannie Farmer Cookbook, one of the best-selling cookbooks in America, was published in 1979. Cunningham was 57. She got a $60,000 advance and promptly went out and bought herself a new Jaguar.

This year, Knopf is about to publish her eighth and last (or so Cunningham says) cookbook, Lost Recipes. It’s filled with classic old family recipes like New England boiled dinner, shoofly pie, and corn chowder. The idea is to keep America’s old recipes from falling into extinction, and thus keep American cooking—and the family table—intact.

It’s exactly what Beard would have wanted. The decline in home cooking isn’t merely the loss of home-cooked meals, Cunningham said. “Family dishes truly do tell you who you are and where you’ve been.”