She died Wednesday morning at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, Calif., at age 90, according to food consultant Clark Wolf, a long-time friend. She had been suffering from the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s for several years.
A Southern California native, Cunningham didn’t begin writing cookbooks until she was 57. She got the job of rewriting the monumental “Boston Cooking School Cookbook," first published in 1896, on the recommendation of James Beard, from whom she had taken cooking classes for many years.
Her revision, titled “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” was an instant success and established her as one of the leading voices in American home cooking. After that, she wrote seven additional cookbooks, including the highly praised “Fannie Farmer Baking Book” and “The Breakfast Book.”
“Marion Cunningham epitomized good American food,” said Judith Jones, her legendary longtime editor at Alfred Knopf, in a statement. “She was recommended to me by Jim Beard when we agreed to take over ‘The Fannie Farmer Cookbook’ and update it from start to finish. She was someone who had an ability to take a dish, savor it in her mouth, and give it new life. At a time when Americans were embracing all kinds of foreign cuisine, Marion Cunningham’s love and respect for American food helped ‘The Fannie Farmer Cookbook’ once again earn a place in kitchens across America.”
Cunningham was also a longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle and had a television cooking show called “Cunningham and Company."
Less known, but almost as important was her role as adviser and confidant to a younger generation of chefs, including Bay Area luminaries such as Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower and Judy Rogers.
In 1992, then-Los Angeles Times food editor Ruth Reichl wrote about the preparations for Cunningham's 70th birthday, which was overseen by Waters and was held at the Robert Mondavi Winery.
Among Cunningham's most praised recipes was her very simple and very delicious adaptation of traditional yeast-raised waffles, which she included in one of her columns for The Times in 1997.
-- Russ Parsons
Photo: Marion Cunningham in 1999. Credit: Los Angeles Times