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.