Marion Cunningham

I was an incredibly fortunate young man when I was starting our as a cook way back in the early 80’s. At that time, there were few celebrity chefs, there were no television networks entirely devoted to cooking. And the glossy food magazines had articles by people like Richard Olney and Paula Wolfert, instead of following Bobby Flay around Manhattan looking for babes and BBQ.

Our culinary heroes back them were people who actually wrote their own books and cooked because it was their passion. Working at Chez Panisse, I was extremely fortunate to meet a lot of those people in person, including Jane Grigson, MFK Fisher, Maida Heatter, Julie Child, James Beard, and the aforementioned Richard Olney. Most of them are now gone, but there’s one person who is the last of the great, classic American cooks around: Marion Cunningham.

Our first interaction was when she came barreling in from the dining room, racing through the kitchen of Chez Panisse with her grey ponytail bobbing behind her, looking for the person who’d make …”that divine Butterscotch Ice Cream.” Fortunately that person was me, and for the next 15 years or so, I could reasonably be accused of bribing Marion whenever she came in with anything involving caramelized sugar; from salty Caramel Ice Cream (we both like it far before it was fashionable), to classic American Lemon Meringue Pie with an extra-deeply broiled topping I’d make just for her.

She loved them all.

But Marion was not a sugary-sweet person, in spite of her deep love for the stuff.


She was the quintessential person who didn’t “suffer fools gladly”, and could cut anyone down to size with a good old-fashioned tongue-lashing. Luckily, I was never on the end of one, but I saw the shaky effects on those who had been. It wasn’t pretty. Perhaps this was the result of her overcoming a very tough addiction to alcohol, which she successfully replaced with sugar.
I don’t know.

Marion’s also famous for being one of the most lead-footed drivers you’d ever meet.
After dinner in a restaurant, she’d get into her vintage Jaguar (which she told me she bought with the small amount of money she made from updating The Fannie Farmer Cook Book in the 1980’s) and speed off in the direction of the nearest freeway on-ramp. People would just stop and stare at the site of a tall, crisply-dressed woman with steely-grey hair pulled back, screeching off into the night, her blue-eyes shining in the reflection of the streetlamps of San Francisco.

I always welcomed hearing her stories about how she began her cooking career with James Beard. The story that stands out the most to me was when they were invited to a department store to do a cooking demonstration. When they arrived, there was no oven. Nor was there a stove. Thinking quickly, they upended two irons from the housewares aisle, set a few skillets on them, and went to work.

Marion was not at all haughty and had a real soft spot for home bakers and cooks. She was perplexed and frustrated that many adults had no idea how to cook, so much so that she started teaching cooking classes in her home kitchen so she could teach people that browning a chicken was a bit more involved (and flavorful) than if you brushed it with Kitchen Bouquet. She made it her mission to pass on her knowledge, which just isn’t something you see anymore. If that spirit is there amongst the folks on television beaming with their Cheshire cat-like grins on the covers of their cookbooks, it certainly isn’t coming though to me. But perhaps my standards are understandably high.

If it wasn’t for Marion, I probably wouldn’t have written my first cookbook. She pushed me to do it, providing encouragement and advice along the way. I know for sure that the book wouldn’t have happened with her. She was also instrumental in starting The Bakers Dozen, a group of professional and non-professionals who shared a love of baking.

Within a few months, the Bay Area chapter had almost 500 members. Although we were all pretty much against any kind of structure, like electing leaders and having dues (which had doomed too many well-meaning organizations) she optimistically opened the meetings with a speech, touching on our common mission of sharing knowledge, and she would hold the hundreds of people in attendance with rapt fascination when she took the microphone and introduced topics for discussion.

We all went to work on a book, and at one point, way too many years later, we were all a bit frustrated and overwhelmed by the project. This was mostly due to the fact that during our meetings, instead of getting to the nuts-and-bolts of how to put a book together melding the collective wisdom of 500 members, we’d instead sit around and talk about the best ways to whip egg whites, how to properly measuring brown sugar, and if sifting was indeed really necessary.

We didn’t get much done, much to our editors dismay, but we sure had a great time. That book took almost ten years to complete because we were having too much fun to actually ‘work’. And because Marion would often keep us entertained with stories of all sorts, most of them were nice (although I liked the other ones best), working was darn near impossible for us.

Another frustration was that Marion refused to use email, but always kept a listed phone number, since she welcomed strangers who would call her with baking questions; we’d have to fax her copies of our emails. And when people complained that they just didn’t have much time for cooking or baking, she’d reply, “Everyone’s always saying they’re so busy. I’d like to know one thing: What is everyone doing?”

My last memory of Marion was when she rang me up, the old-fashioned way, and invited me along with Bay Area chef James Ormsby and Elizabeth Falkner, owner of Citizen Cake bakery, to come over for homemade waffles. We drove out to her house in the suburbs, and there she was, warming up her waffle iron while brushing it with an alarming amount of melted butter. After she pried the last yeasty waffle off the iron, and we polished the stacks off on our plates (with plenty of maple syrup), she took us out to see the Black Widow Spider that had taken up residence in her garage.

Since I moved to Paris, I’ve heard from various friends that Marion’s health has declined and she’s unable to work. Frankly, when she told me about going to her local pool (where she swam daily, until well into her 80’s). On that day, everyone was staring at her and she wondered why…until someone told her that her swimsuit was on backwards, I chalked it up to her just being Marion.

But I guess it was a sign of things to come.

During this holiday season, for some reason I’ve been thinking of Marion, even though we’ve lost touch. I know she doesn’t read blogs, that’s for sure. She’d probably wonder why I wasn’t home baking with you rather than writing about it online. I do know she’s no longer doing much work, or making waffles. But since this is the time of year for giving thanks for something, or to someone, I thought I’d share my memory of her and give thanks that I was fortunate to have such an ardent supporter and a good friend in my life.

I know. It’s become a cliché that baking is sharing. But in Marion’s case, it certainly was true. So in her spirit, I’d like to thank you for sharing this year with me here on the site.

And next time you pull a juicy, flaky-golden pie from the oven, or pluck a crisp, steaming waffle off the waffle iron, perhaps give thanks to any of the wonderful people that you meet at various moments in your life.

Those are the folks we should always be thankful for, the people we pass along the way, who make life indelibly richer.


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28 comments

  • Merry Christmas, David!

  • Wishing you a beautiful christmas filled with blessings and lots & lots of (great) chocolate!

  • What a lovely tribute, David, to a remarkable woman. I hope someone calls her up and reads it to her.

    And thank you for making me laugh and think–and crave chocolate–all year long. Wishing you a Happy New Year to come.

  • Happy Holidays to you and thank you for sharing your memories and talent. We are thankful for you also.

  • A beautiful piece. Thank you…

  • Hi David,
    What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it with us. Seasons Blessings to you and all your readers.

  • Jouyeaux noel, David, and thank you so much for sharing such treasured memories with us. Thank you, as well, for entertaining and inspiring me this past year.

  • Perfect tribute for Christmas, written with style and obvious affection.

    Thanks for being you, David.

    Joyeux Noel.

  • what a beautiful tribute to a strong and talented woman! i wish there were more like her.

    hope you are having a great holiday!

  • Everything I read about Marion Cunningham makes me want to be her! Just today I put together her Featherbed Eggs from the Breakfast Book for Christmas breakfast. Happy Holidays from Oregon!

  • When the food network first started, she had a show that featured chefs or cookbook writers, talking about what motivated them and then cooking with them. I remember her looking with disdain at someone or other who would only use ‘free range’ chickens or her chats with Richard Olney. Classic tv that hopefully we could see again. I used to call her Marion Cunningham not Richie’s Mom when I would quote her or try her recipes. How lucky for you to have memories such as these.

  • Hi David, this was a very nice tribute to Marion Cunningham. Happy holidays and thank you very much for keeping this blog. All the best for the coming year!

  • Merry Christmas David! Thanks for the entertainment, recipes, and Paris tips all year!

  • This was a wonderful post to read before bed on Christmas Eve. I wish you a wonderful holiday season in Paris – easily the best city ever.

  • David,

    There are those of us out here in VR land who are starting to feel similarly about you.

    Thank you for your great blog, the encouragement you give people, the wonderful writing and the sublime recipes.

    Merry Christmas
    aja

  • Usually you make me laugh (or educate me) but this piece choked me up. Was it only this year that I discovered your blog? In any case, I look forward to each new post with great anticipation. So in addition to a wish that you have the happiest of holidays as well as a terrific 2007, I’d also like to send you a very big THANKS!

  • I have been making Marion’s waffles ever since reading the recipe in Saveur a few years back. This year I started making waffles and bacon (on occasional Friday mornings) for kids in my son’s 6th grade class, serving up to 15 kids (and some parents who won’t go away) in 30 minutes flat BEFORE SCHOOL. It couldn’t be more fun — they stagger in, eat & walk to school afterwards. Like a little underground breakfast club known by word-of-mouth, my visiting niece once overheard one kid whispering, “So how did you find out about this?”
    Thank you for a wonderful piece. We all owe a lot to Marion.

  • Thank you, David, for all your generosity sharing your tasty recipes, funny stories, and beautiful photos with us throughout the year. That was a particularly touching tribute to Marion Cunningham — you have indeed been lucky to meet many of the great cooks and food writers of our time. I wish you a happy holiday season!

  • That was beautiful!
    Marion also was important to me.. I remember her a t the Stanford Court Hotel, where she often came with James Beard. We were standing at an elevator to go downstairs.. I told her about my having just been told by Mr Nassikas.. that I was too old to go to culinary school in Switzerland… she laughed.. and told me how old she was when she started with James Beard.

    Thank you David.. for the story.. and Thank God for Marion!

  • A beautiful tribute, David!

    Thank you for sharing your humour and baking knowledge.

  • Thanks for writing this. Ms. Cunningham is a throwback to people who were both thoughtful about food and completely unpretentious about it. She was very kind to me once — I remember writing her a note asking some arcane cooking question, and shortly thereafter she called me up to talk about it! Her generosity, good taste and good sense are something in short supply these days. She’s definitely someone to both admire and cherish.

    Happy holidays, David. Your blog is also something to admire and cherish.

  • How wonderful to have had a lady like this in your life to inspire and encourage you. It was a heartwarming read:)

  • David, I’m so glad there are people in the world like you who are continuing to keep this kind of personal effort within our culture. It is too easy to let technology allow us to get too comfortable taking the path of least resistance. It is a struggle, but a good one. When I was in the thick of making strawberry jam and up at midnight making cookies this year, I went through resentfulness, “why am I doing this,” and finally got to, “this is worth doing until I don’t have the breath to do it,” gratefulness that I can. This kind of sharing is irreplaceable.

  • Carol: I once read of someone’s recollections of their making lots of cookies, cakes, and other things for gift-giving at the holidays. Their housekeeper, who ran the kitchen, told her, “Anyhow can buy a gift. When you make something…now that’s special.”

    Similarly, those thoughts were running through my head this past week when the gifts I ordered back in November were lost by La Poste. So I scrambled to make everything I possibly could at the last minute, from candied nuts and quince jam, to hand-made bars of chocolate, spiced persimmon cakes, and much more. It was actually quite fun, although a bit of a scramble (and a bit of cursing La Poste…where do those packages of mine keep disappearing to?)

    Yet I did feel quite happy to hand people something handmade and I do remember Marion’s words…“…what is everyone so busy doing?”

    So it is nice to stop…and take some time during the rather hectic holiday season to take a moment to reflect on what’s really important in life.

  • David, this is genuinely beautiful. I nodded and nodded as I read, and then I teared up. Honestly, my blogger friends, you are one of my deepest inspirations in my baking adventures. And thank you for all the laughter and genuine joy you provide with this lovely blog.

    xo,
    shauna

  • Thanks for a great post on a great person. I have Marion’s Lost Recipes and love it. I gave it to my 92-year-old grandmother for her birthday this year and have since talked to her on the phone – each of us with our copy of the book, going over the recipes together long distance. What a gift.

  • If you love Paula Wolfert you will love this cassoule and her cassoulet recipe.

  • What a lovely reminiscence–you’ve captured the qualities that made Marion so special very well. Often when I was searching for some obscure piece of culinary history I’d call Marion and ask her. It was always amazing how much she knew and she was never too busy to help, never dismissing any of my questions as being unimportant or absurd.

    Once when I was writing a review of a cookbook by a local (San Francisco) author who, having become terminally ill, had moved back to Kansas I wanted to interview members of his family but had no idea of where they lived. Because she had written a testimonial for several of his cookbooks, I called Marion and asked her for the author’s last address and telephone number. “You do know, Fred, that he’s been dead for five years now, don’t you?” After I told her that I did, she said “Well, all right then,” and got the address and phone number from one of her notebooks. Using the author’s last address I did a reverse search for the current telephone number and soon found myself talking with the author’s last landlady. Not only did she regale me with anecdotes about her late tenant, she provided me with his family members’ names, addresses, and telephone numbers. After they gave me all the information I needed and more, I called Marion to thank her. I told her how I had used her information and how helpful it had been. She admitted having been curious about what I was going to do with it.

    Marion’s editor, Judith Jones, provides interesting insights into what made Marion so special in her book, “The Tenth Muse.” On those occasions when I do cook, I reach for Marion’s “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” 13th edition, and feel comfortable, secure in the knowledge that I’m going to have good luck and that everything is going to turn out just right.