'Fannie Farmer’s' Marion Cunningham and her never-built fat farm
She dreamed of a fat farm. Before her health deteriorated and she disappeared from the family of professional and home cooks who loved her the most, Marion Cunningham, author of “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” and many more important American cookbooks, wanted to run a fat farm for food writers. Not the dieting kind with restrictive calorie regimens, but a compound of cottages surrounding a common kitchen in which meals would be happy, communal-cooking occasions. Butter would not be banished on this fat farm and no one would have to come up with healthy alternatives for the foods Cunningham loved to make the most.
She wanted to annex the land next to her Walnut Creek ranch home at the base of Northern California’s Mt. Diablo for the compound, then invite all her favorite food people and run the place herself. It was her unrealized retirement plan.
When word emerged Wednesday that Cunningham had died at the age of 90 after years in an assisted-care home, I thought about her never-built fat farm and the meals she would have made there. I thought about her roast chicken. That’s what we were eating at her dining room table when she described her dream. And it’s the food that in my mind most represents her legacy. No one was a better advocate for the simple roast chicken dinner than Marion Cunningham. To her, a roast chicken was the answer for everyday dinners, for special gatherings with friends and, for the many children and adults she taught to cook through her books and in person. Roast chicken was the meal that could turn any kitchen novice into a cook.
After her book “Cooking With Children” was published, I wrote in The Times, “Cunningham's most striking accomplishment might be the language of the recipes themselves.” I knew this to be true first-hand because I had the pleasure of editing Cunningham’s “The Home Cook” column when I was The Times' food editor during much of the 1990s.
A few years later, when she was writing “Learning to Cook With Marion Cunningham,” she invited adult beginner cooks into her house and saw for herself how the formal language of recipe writing could confound non-cooks. She watched, astonished, as one man making tarte Tatin, instructed to toss apples in a bowl with lemon juice and sugar, placed his bowl on one end of a large table, stood on the other side and tossed the apple slices across the table, making a mess. "I said, 'What were you thinking about?' " Cunningham said in The Times story I wrote about the book. “He said, 'Well, I thought maybe everything needed to aerate or something.' "
Maybe because she came to her cookbook fame late in life, she sympathized with her grown-up students. “I tell the adults to put a packet of yeast into a bowlful of warm water and they want to know: What do I mean by warm? Should it be a specific temperature? Do I mean exactly five minutes? They're afraid of failing and looking dumb in front of other people."
I have many other memories of Cunningham — how she always pronounced “Los Angeles” with a hard “g” and long “e” at the end, angle - ees, like a Raymond Chandler vixen; how delighted she was when she slurped her first boba tea with my husband and daughter in Monterey Park; how she always said, “I’m sorry, dear, I flunked computer,” whenever something went awry after she emailed her column.
But the best way to get to know Cunningham and what her life was like is through her own words -- in her cookbooks, and especially in her many “The Home Cook” columns she wrote for The Times. One of my favorites of the many that can still be found in The Times archives is one of the earliest she wrote for the food section about her Southern California childhood.
“In the small foothill town of La Crescenta where I grew up,” she wrote, “we spent long summer evenings, after breathlessly hot days, swinging in the hammock … Around 8 each evening, it seemed that everyone in town walked down to Watson's drugstore to buy a quart of ice cream. ... [Our neighbors] the Merricks made root beer with great success except for the first summer, when they couldn't afford a bottle-capper. They made their first batch, corked it and put it in the attic to ferment. In a day or two, all the corks flew out of the bottles, making a colossal mess.”
She went on to describe the neighborhood’s root-beer-float parties and worked in an edgy comment about her mom’s cooking (“My mother followed the government pamphlets on nutrition that she sent away for, and paid no attention to taste”).
And, of course, at the centerpiece of the meal she devised for the column inspired by those summer memories, was the classic Marion solution to every cook’s what’s-for-dinner question: a simple roast chicken.
Photo credit: Susan Tusa / MCT