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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, July 17, 2002

'Fannie Farmer' author says anyone can cook

By Michelle R. Smith
Associated Press

Marion Cunningham was hired in the 1970s to update the recipes in the cookbook treasured by so many Americans for generations.
BERKELEY, Calif. — The woman who brought "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" back into millions of kitchens has a message for people who buy exotic cookbooks and watch superstar chefs on the Food Network — then go out to eat.

From baking blueberry muffins to roasting Thanksgiving turkey, Marion Cunningham encourages the kind of dishes most people make in real life: simple and easy, with ingredients available at the local supermarket.

Cunningham's sensibility helped her make her mark two decades ago by thoroughly revitalizing the "Fannie Farmer" book, keeping alive the name that has been a part of the American consciousness for more than a century.

First published in 1896, "The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book" was written by Fannie Merritt Farmer, an influential New England cook who said her greatest achievement was introducing accurate measures in cooking.

In the decades that followed, the book was revised several times, but by the 1970s the recipes were stuck in the past and sales were slipping. Many dishes were too heavy or leaned on ingredients such as canned cream of mushroom soup, tastes that were seriously out of date, said Judith Jones, the editor credited with taking a chance on Julia Child's landmark, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

Jones knew the encyclopedic cooking reference could be popular again with a serious overhaul. She told James Beard, the revered chef and author of more than two dozen cookbooks, that she was looking for a "new Fannie Farmer." He suggested a student of his, a housewife from California whose first trip out of the state — at age 45 — was to attend Beard's cooking classes in Oregon.

Married to a lawyer and with two school-age children, Cunningham was neither a chef nor an author at the time — but she had a love of food, an instinct for what works and a palate that impressed Beard.

The two quickly became friends. He asked her to assist his classes and they often wrote to each other.

Jones was sold after Beard showed her some of Cunningham's letters.

"I just loved the tone of those letters," said Jones, who has edited all of Cunningham's books at Alfred A. Knopf, including "The Fannie Farmer Baking Book" and "Learning to Cook With Marion Cunningham."

"It was a big undertaking, and it had to be someone who was quintessentially an American cook. ... Marion just seemed the perfect person."

Cunningham tested each recipe herself in her tiny kitchen in the San Francisco suburb of Walnut Creek. If it wasn't sweet enough, she'd add sugar. If that didn't work, she'd try something else, marking her changes in notes she sent to Jones.

Though she claims it wasn't difficult — Cunningham says she's been blessed with a "critical palate" — it took seven years of painstaking cooking and baking. "If I had to do it today, I don't think I'd be able to do it," she confesses. "It took such repetitiveness. The shopping alone, the constant filling up with new ingredients. But I loved it when I did it."

Her neighbors loved it too. They, along with Cunningham's two children, husband and gardener, ate the fruits of her labor.

"The people who live on a hill behind me, they had a dog I was very fond of. When I started giving them food, their dog got fatter and fatter," Cunningham laughs. "As far as I know, nothing went to waste."

About 1,800 recipes made the final cut. The book was published in 1979, securing Cunningham a place among the country's great cooks.

Among her admirers is Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, the celebrated Berkeley restaurant that revolutionized the American dining scene.

"She knows everyone," Waters said. "She's the olive oil — or I should say the butter — of the food world."

Gourmet magazine editor in chief Ruth Reichl agrees.

"She's one of the people who keeps the food community together," says Reichl, who considers Cunningham her mentor.

"She got her life together and discovered work. She showed that a woman of her generation could go from being a housewife, could follow her passion and could make a career out if it," Reichl said.

Now 80, Cunningham hasn't stopped at Fannie Farmer.

She's written seven other cookbooks, selling more than a million copies. She writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times. She's listed as a contributing editor for Saveur magazine. And she puts 2,500 miles a month on her Jaguar.

"I always loved to drive," she says, and she does, going almost every day into San Francisco to visit and dine with friends. She also started Baker's Dozen, a nonprofit group for amateur and professional bakers to trade ideas. It's grown to hundreds of members in groups across the country.

Behind her warm smile and gracious manner, Cunningham has a few peeves. She thinks certain chefs have become too concerned with building "empires," to the detriment of the restaurants that made their names.

As for the exploding business of cookbooks, which now occupy entire sections of large bookstores, she wonders aloud why they have become such big business while cooking at home has declined.

"We have lost that line between home cooking and restaurant cooking," she complains.

That's the subject of the book Cunningham is working on now, which she says is her last. Called "Lost Recipes," it tackles the decline of the communal table. She expects it to be published later this year.

"The food that we eat tells us who we are and where we're from," she said. "People have memories that they've lived with all their lives of what was fixed at home. How can you do that with a Big Mac?"

"Anyone can cook," Cunningham says. "I just wish more people did."

Cooking is not difficult, and Cunningham wants people to know it. The secret to cooking at home is simple, she says: "It's all about using leftovers."

She personally answers letters she gets from distressed home cooks who use her recipes and get disastrous results.

"I'll say 'Let's start in the beginning, and you tell me what you did."' She pulls a photograph from her purse of a loaf of bread that has gone terribly wrong. The baker sent the photo to Cunningham along with an enraged letter.

"She hadn't realized she used self-rising flour and baking powder so she totally blew it up," Cunningham laughs.

By keeping her recipes approachable and straightforward, Cunningham hopes to encourage that baker to keep trying despite her initial failure. With a little guidance, even the shyest in the kitchen can cook, she says.

As for her own good fortune, her seemingly accidental path from housewife to best-selling author, Cunningham takes a philosophical approach.

"It's one of those mysterious things. It kind of makes you think there's more than just the way it happened. There's something else."