Nearly everyone in this country and most of the world knows the name of Julia Child. But there was another woman who also had a profound influence on the culinary scene of America, Marion Cunningham. Marion was a native Californian, elegant while remaining down-to-earth, and a delight in every way. She passed away two days ago and I have lost one of my heroes.
Marion championed American home cooking. Her dream was to get people back into the kitchen and have families enjoy sitting down to a home cooked dinner every night. She feared that generations of children have lost the art of polite conversation and good table manners.
She adored sharing her love of cooking and baking with everyone and was one of the most generous people I have known. She welcomed anyone to call her at her home if they had any questions or trouble with a recipe. Her phone number was publicly listed in the directory and available to all. Given how security conscious people are these days, that was a true anomaly.
I had the honor of meeting her through my membership in The Baker’s Dozen, an organization of professional bakers and enthusiasts that Marion help found. She longed for an open forum where everyone could share their knowledge and seek answers for issues they were having. For the very first meeting of The Baker’s Dozen, members were asked to bake an angel food cake from the same recipe. When everyone assembled, the cakes were lined up on a long table and not one looked alike. It was a remarkable experience for everyone who attended.
Marion overcame some debilitating conditions, including alcoholism and agoraphobia, to become an international success. She faced her fear of traveling by plane and, at the age of 45, left California for the first time to take a cooking class in Oregon taught by James Beard. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship that was augmented when Marion became Beard’s assistant.
Marion was first and foremost a home cook. She preferred simply prepared classic American dishes to anything fancy. She was an unpretentious person who wore her beautiful silver hair pulled straight back into a neat ponytail at the base of her neck. She never her took her fame seriously, but the room would become quiet when she walked in with her powerful presence. Modest and humble, she was everyone’s mother, grandmother, friend, and teacher rolled into one.
Marion is best known for updating the original Fannie Farmer Cookbook, the classic cooking tome first published in 1896. She followed that with six more of her own cookbooks and collaborating on several others. She was concerned that classic recipes such as meatloaf, roasted chicken and angel food cake would be lost as well as classic cooking techniques that have always been passed from generation to generation when children stood at the stove learning from their mothers.
She was the penultimate advocate of anyone who wanted to write a cookbook. She was the first one to encourage me, reminding me that it took Julia Child ten years to get her first book published and that it was never too late to follow your dreams. If and when I do get my first book published, it will because Marion had faith in me.
While I mourn the loss, I am incredibly grateful for her many books that will continue to teach and guide future cooks and chefs. If you have not discovered Marion’s unique unassuming style, I urge you to buy her books and discover the pleasure of simple ingredients cooked with love and the delight of sharing them with the special people in your life.
Fannie Farmer Baking Book (on James Beard Foundation’s list of essential baking cookbooks)
Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham
The Greens Cookbook (collaborator)
The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook (collaborator)
To honor Marion’s legacy I thought I would share some of her recipes with you, beginning with Potato Bacon Pie for breakfast, a traditional Wedge Salad for lunch (one of her favorites) and finishing the day with Roasted Chicken with Vegetables for dinner. And of course we can’t forget dessert … I know you will love Marion’s delightful Orange Sour Cream Cake.
Thank you Marion for sharing your passion for food with all of us and leaving us with so many wonderful memories of your graciousness, unending kindness and joy of life. We will miss you.
- Butter, at room temperature, to butter the pan
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1/2 medium onion, peeled and chipped finely
- 4 cups cooked potato, grated or crushed into small bits
- Black pepper in a mill
- Kosher salt to taste
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 12 slices bacon, fried, drained and crumbled
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter an 8-inch pie pan.
- Melt the 1 tbsp butter in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chopped onions and sauté until translucent, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.
- Put the potato in a bowl and season heavily with black pepper and to taste with salt. Add milk, onions, and bacon, mix thoroughly and spread evenly in the pie pan.
- Bake for 40 minutes or until the top is lightly browned.
- Remove from the oven and cut into wedges. Serve with eggs, preferably poached.
- Makes one 8-inch pie
- 1 head of iceberg or 2 hearts of romaine lettuce, washed and cored
- 1/2 cup Roquefort or Blue Cheese dressing (recipe follows), or creamy dressing of your choice
- 3 tbsp chopped fresh chives
- 4 slices bacon, fried until crisp and crumbled
- 1 medium tomato, seeded and cut into small dice
- If using iceberg lettuce, cut out the core and slice in half, cutting through the core. Lay each half flat-side down on a cutting board and halve again or cut into three wedges. If using hearts of romaine, cut each in half lengthwise.
- Place lettuce wedges on serving plates. Drizzle each with a little of the Roquefort dressing. Sprinkle the tops with chives, bacon and tomato. Serve immediately.
- Yield: 4 to 6 servings
- 2 oz Roquefort or blue cheese
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1 tsp vinegar
- 1 tbsp milk
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Crumble the cheese into a small mixing bowl. Add the mayonnaise and sour cream and mix well with a fork. Add the vinegar, milk, and salt and stir to blend. Use more milk for a thinner dressing. Refrigerate until used.
- Yield: 1 cup
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 cut-up chicken (8 pieces), 2-1/2 to 3 lb
- 3 medium red onions
- 8 red potatoes
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tsp dried rosemary or several sprigs of fresh rosemary
- 2 large garlic cloves
- Preheat oven to 425°F.
- Spread 1 tbsp of the olive oil over the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with your fingers or a paper towel.
- Rinse the chicken pieces under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels.
- Peel the onions, cut off the root end and cut into quarters. Wash the potatoes and cut them in half. There is no need to peel them. Salt and pepper the potatoes and onions.
- If you are using fresh rosemary, chop on the small, needle-like leaves, discarding the stems. You should have about 1 tbsp.
- Peel and finely chop the garlic.
- Put the potatoes in the middle of the baking dish and sprinkle the rosemary and garlic over them. Place the chicken pieces on top of the potatoes. Surround the chicken and potatoes with the onions.
- Drizzle the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil over the chicken; salt and pepper generously.
- Put the chicken in the oven and roast for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the skin is nicely browned.
- When the chicken is done, remove everything to a platter. Tilt the pan and carefully spoon off most of the fat, then pour the good pan juices over the chicken and vegetables. Decorate the platter with fresh rosemary branches, if you have them. Serve hot.
- 1 tbsp butter, let come to roomtemperature
- 2 tbsp all-purposeflour
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, remove from refrigerator and let come to roomtemperature
- 3/4 cup granulatedsugar
- 2 largeeggs
- 1-1/2 tsp orangeextract
- 2 tbsp grated orange zest (the outer orange-coloredskin)
- 1 cup all-purposeflour
- 1/2 tsp bakingpowder
- 1/2 tsp bakingsoda
- 1/4 tspsalt
- 3/4 cup sourcream
- Powdered sugar, for serving
- Preheat the oven to 325°F at least 15 minutes before you plan to bake thecake.
- Rub the inside (bottom and sides) of a baking pan with the 1 tbsp butter. The pan may be an 8-1/2 x 4-1/2 x 3-inch loaf pan or an 8-inch round, 2-inch deep cake pan. Sprinkle the 2 tbsp flour into the pan, then tilt pan, tapping bottom and sides with your hand to distribute the flour as evenly as possible. Turn the pan upside down over the wastebasket and tap the bottom to dislodge any excessflour.
- Put the 1/2 cup butter and the sugar into a large mixing bowl. Using a large spoon or an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until thoroughly blended and smooth. Add the eggs and beat until completely blended with the butter-sugar mixture. Add the orange extract and orange zest, and beat and blend into thebatter.
- Mix together the 1 cup flour, the baking powder, baking soda and salt in a smallbowl.
- Add half of the flour mixture to the batter and beat well. Then add half of the sour cream and beat until the batter issmooth. Add the remaining flour mixture to the batter, beating until blended. Then add the remaining sour cream, beating until it is blended into thebatter. Spread the batter in the pan; smooth the top with aspatula.
- If using a loaf pan, bake for about 40 to 50 minutes, checking after 35 minutes for doneness. If using a round cake pan, bake for 20 to 25minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the center of the cake; if it comes out clean with no sticky batter clinging to it, the cake isdone.
- Remove the pan from the oven, place on a heat-resistant surface and let cool for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the inside rim of the pan and invert the pan over a plate or a sheet of wax paper. Give the pan a little shake if the cake does not come out immediately. Let cool to roomtemperature.
- Slice and sprinkle each piece with a little powdered sugar before serving.
- Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Therevwere recipes in the back of one of her cookbooks, for always having the mix for chocolate cookies and for hake and bake…..I would love to find the shake and bake recipe again!!
Jane Bonacci, The Heritage Cook
I will check my books and see if I can find what you are talking about. If I do, I’ll send it to you!
Jackie @Syrup and Biscuits
How fortunate you are to have had such a wonderful mentor and supporter. Your tribute to her is heartfelt and warm. Thank you for sharing a piece of your heart.
Jane Bonacci, The Heritage Cook
Thank you Jackie, that is so sweet of you. Marion will always have a place in my heart!
I enjoyed this blog post immensely. Marion Cunningham accomplished so much in her lifetime. Her recipes will always be cherished by all. I loved her approach to cooking and hold the “Fannie Farmers Cookbook” as one of my all time favorites. It was one of the first ones I used to learn how to cook. I had no idea that she had agorophobia. It was something that mysteriously happened to me in my late 20s and mysteriously disappeared at the age of 30. She certainly conquered it and was able to live a most successful life. What a terrific tribute to a dear lady and glad that you had the opportunity to know her and learn from her.
Jane Bonacci, The Heritage Cook
Thank you so much Judimae. It was a hard one for me to write and yet easy at the same time. Every time you pick up one of her books and read her recipes, you can hear her voice as though she were there talking to you. She was just as charming as her recipes!
April @ Angel's Homestead
What a sweet tribute to a great cook. I have the same cooking philosophy as Marion, and try my best to instill that same love of cooking simply prepared, classic American dishes in my daughter. We lost a great cook and teacher, may she RIP.
Jane Bonacci, The Heritage Cook
April, I think if we ever compared notes on what we love to cook the most, the lists would be very similar. You are I are cut from the same cloth as Marion! I know your daughter will be a fabulous, natural cook just like her mom!