Pacific Northwest | January 25, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineJanuary 25, home
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In word and spirit, Marion Cunningham keeps us at the table
Author Marion Cunningham stirs up a batch of her favorite waffles during a recent visit to the Pacific Northwest. Through her cookbooks, the traditions of the American kitchen live on.
IT'S EASY TO think of cookbook author Marion Cunningham as America's grandmother. She radiates a kind of strength that makes others feel safe in her presence. Her sunny-California disposition and slightly befuddled persona belie a sharp mind and a tough constitution typical of that generation of Americans who weathered the Great Depression, World War II and the various other calamities that constituted the late, great 20th century.

"If I had it to do all over," she insists, "I guess I would have been an auto mechanic." She was, in fact, in charge of a garage during World War II. "When all the men were off at war," she explained as we zipped along in her Lexus to a dinner at Frog Hollow Peach Farm in Brentwood, Calif. "I changed oil, changed tires and filled tanks with gasoline, and I loved it."

She still loves cars. "I used to drive only Jaguars; I leased a new one every year. They gave me a lot of trouble — mechanical trouble. But I loved them anyway. I liked the way they looked. I guess it's kind of like falling in love with the wrong man; you just don't really pay attention to the faults, you just enjoy them."

 Raised Waffles
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Cunningham's husband may or may not have been the wrong man. He did discourage her from pursuing her dream of owning her own garage. Instead, as the dutiful 20th-century wife and mother, Cunningham stayed at home and cooked. "I baked so many cupcakes for the PTA that if I had sold them instead, I could have retired some time ago a millionaire," she writes in her seventh book, "Lost Recipes: Meals to Share with Friends and Family."

Then, during the 1970s, Cunningham made an excursion to Seaside, Ore., to take a cooking class from America's culinary father, James Beard, with whom she immediately established a great rapport. No romance was involved, but the two had a definite chemistry, and before long, Beard asked Cunningham to help him teach classes and travel with him on consulting jobs. When Beard's editor, the legendary Judith Jones at Alfred A. Knopf, was looking for someone to re-create Fannie Merritt Farmer's "Boston Cooking-School Cookbook," Beard suggested Cunningham.

"I had never written a cookbook before," she recalls, "and I never paid attention in school; I wasn't even sure I could write. But Jim thought I could do it, and Judith thought I could, so I just did it." The book was an instant classic. Lists of equipment, a glossary of ingredients and sensible menu advice bolstered a collection of 1,990 smart, well-tested recipes.

"The Fannie Farmer Baking Book" followed soon after. "I always thought of myself as a baker," confided Cunningham. Then came a little classic called "The Breakfast Book," the first of five non-Fannie Farmer books that established Marion Cunningham as an icon as significant to the 21st century as Fannie Farmer was to the 20th.

Cunningham's "Lost Recipes" is a tribute to the 20th-century table. And while many of the recipes are hardly lost (some of them are still in print in Cunningham's other books), what is lost is the way of life celebrated on these pages. The collection is larded with quotes from various thinkers musing on the significance of the family meal. And, while it's no news that the tradition of gathering as a family around the table is threatened in 21st-century American homes, no one has made a stronger case for keeping that tradition alive than Marion Cunningham.

The recipes here are easy ones. No special skills are required, and techniques that might sound challenging in another writer's prose appear indubitably do-able in Cunningham's work. Some of the recipes in "Lost Recipes" might be better off lost — "Brownstone Cake" proved impossible for this accomplished baker, and I could live forever without a formula for "Salmon Loaf" — but others are real treasures.

Every home cook should know how to make a batch of "Cream Biscuits," and "Marion's Meatloaf" is the definitive word on the subject. Many of these recipes are eerily familiar. I could almost swear that Cunningham found my mother's recipe for "Spinach, Mushroom and Bacon Salad," and I know she found my mother's recipe for candied carrots. In any case, this collection would lure anyone into the kitchen out of curiosity, if nothing else.

There is a rule of thumb that if a cookbook provides even one recipe that becomes a part of a cook's repertoire, then the book is worth owning. "Raised Waffles," adapted from the original 1896 edition of Fannie Farmer's cookbook, is a regular part of Marion Cunningham's. "I make them all the time," she says. "Last week I made them for Chuck Williams for lunch, and we both agreed they were the best thing we'd eaten in a long, long time."

Greg Atkinson is a Bainbridge Island writer and culinary consultant. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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