'Fannie' keeps on cooking

September 15, 1991|By Marian Burros | Marian Burros,New York Times News Service

WALNUT CREEK, CALIF. — Walnut Creek, Calif -- Marion Cunningham, whose lively revision of the prim and outmoded "Fannie Farmer Cookbook" has made it once again a kitchen standard, is talking on her kitchen phone.

"What time can I pick it up?" she asks. Calm as can be. No one would ever suspect that the car of her dreams goes in for repairs as regularly as some people buy gasoline.

Two years ago, when she was 67, Mrs. Cunningham finally realized that the success of her cookbooks had made her a woman who could afford a Jaguar.

It is her only indulgence. But her indulgence is a lemon under Calfornia laws, her lawyers say, so she is suing.

"It's like falling in love with the wrong man," she explained after hanging up.

You might call Mrs. Cunningham a late bloomer. One day she was a traditional housewife with a husband and two children in this town northeast of San Francisco who had never left the state of California.

The next she was that famous cookbook author whose silver hair, pulled back in a bun, clear blue eyes and crinkly smile made her the picture-perfect editor of the revised "Fannie Farmer Cookbook."

She was 57 when it was published by Knopf in 1979 and, in truth, a lot better looking than Fannie Merritt Farmer, who wrote the original in 1896.

A confluence of events propelled Mrs. Cunningham on her improbable journey out of her suburban cocoon into the kitchens of hundreds of thousands of American families.

"I always loved to cook and loved to eat," Mrs. Cunningham recalled, as she put the finishing touches on a dish of orzo and vegetables, a recipe she was testing for "The Supper Book," which is to be published next year.

"I remembered the food in the books I read: 'Heidi' and her grandfather's goat cheese, and Jo in "Little Women" making blanc mange for a sick neighbor boy," she said. "The most money I ever spent on a cookbook then was $9 for James Beard's 'Fireside Cookbook.' "

A few years later James Beard would play a pivotal role in Marion Cunningham's culinary coming out.

In her mid-40s, she took cooking lessons with other suburban matrons until she knew more than the instructors and began to teach classes herself.

"I charged $4 a lesson, and I think I had four people for the first class," she said, laughing at the memory. "I wish I could refund their money."

But within a year or two she was teaching four or five classes. And then, in 1972, she heard that Mr. Beard was giving some classes in Seaside, Ore.

Her husband, Robert, who died in 1988 after many years of failing health, encouraged her to go even though, she said, "he didn't like anything but burnt beef and bourbon."

Mr. Beard admired Mrs. Cunningham's direct and straightforward approach to food, which was similar to his own, and he was charmed by her, though she is too modest to say so herself. He asked her to come back the following year and assist

him.

For the next 10 years Mrs. Cunningham was James Beard's alter ego, traveling abroad with him and becoming part of his inner circle.

"He liked to bring all of his friends together," she said. "We were part of an extended Beardsian family. I loved to hear what he thought about food, about his mother. I loved to listen to the gossip. It was irresistible. James loved the drama, which is what gossip is all about."

If there is an heir to Beard's cooking style, Mrs. Cunningham has a rightful claim -- simplicity and little truck with prevailing fashion.

"I clearly recognize myself as a traditionalist," Mrs. Cunningham said. "I'm never seduced by ideas at the peak of their popularity, such as baby vegetables. I attribute some of that to my time and place, but not entirely. I'm really charmed by some of the new things like mascarpone. It's wonderful with polenta. And sun-dried tomatoes, at least when they first came out. Most of them available now are quite terrible: They have so much ascorbic acid in them. Some of the fruit ices are kind of wonderful, and the biscotti."

What worries her most are some of the technological changes, from speeding up the growth of chickens to speeding up the cooking process.

"I dislike the idea that we are genetically changing our meats and poultry and so many of our ingredients," she said.

Her strong opinions surprise those who don't see beyond a lady, one with a gentle voice and a gentle manner. Her outward appearance belies a deep disdain for compromising principles.

These high standards and exuberance are what attracted Judith Jones, an editor at Knopf, to Mrs. Cunningham, who had been recommended by Beard as someone to edit the "Fannie Farmer Cookbook."

The book, the kitchen bible for millions of American cooks after it was published in 1896, had become an anachronism, despite numerous revisions.

The 4 1/2 -year-long revision amounted to a virtual rewrite. New equipment and new attitudes about food were taken into consideration.

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