The Evanston Community Kitchen

A food memoir about women in the kitchen and history in the making. Food = Story.

Marion Cunningham: Late Bloomer, Agoraphobic, and Food Pioneer

There is a video below of a panel on Marion Cunningham from the New School’s Food Studies Program panel series, Culinary Luminaries.

“Culinary Luminaries: Marion Cunningham

Thursday, February 21, 2013 6:00 p.m.

Location: Theresa Lang Community and Student Center, Arnhold Hall, 55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor, New York

Description: Marion Cunningham (1922–2012) started her professional career at age 50 after taking a cooking class with James Beard. He was so impressed with her cooking that he hired her as his assistant, a position she held for the next eleven years. On Beard’s recommendation, Random House selected Cunningham to edit the 13th edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook (1979). Its success inspired Cunningham to write her own cookbooks, including two for people who have never cooked before. Her dedication to home cooking led former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl to proclaim, “If Beard was the father of American cooking, Cunningham became its mother.” Speakers include Judith Jones, senior editor and vice president, Knopf; Laura Shapiro, author of Something from the Oven; and Anne Mendelson, author of Stand Facing the Stove. Moderated by New School Food Studies faculty member Andrew F. Smith.” – Source: Andrew Smith, New School Food Studies Faculty Member

Photo Source: JamesBeard.org

Marion Cunningham and James Beard ~ Photo Source: JamesBeard.org

Marion Cunningham was an extraordinary person. Her simplicity though and ability to get people to believe in their own cooking abilities and skills set her apart. She was a humble woman and overcame many obstacles before becoming a food icon. She was an extreme agoraphobic and rarely left her home. She was also an alcoholic who quit drinking at the age of 45.

In the New School panel, Laura Shapiro shares a story of Marion confronting her agoraphobia by flying to Los Angeles with two of her closest friends; they sandwiched her with friendship and support, holding both her hands the whole time on the airplane as they all flew from San Francisco to Los Angeles for lunch. Can you imagine the fear Marion had, not only about leaving her safe surroundings,  but also getting on an airplane?

At 45 years old,  this was the turning point for Marion. She came back from her trip to Los Angeles with a fresh perspective. She also quit drinking.   Judith Jones illuminates on this in the panel, “As I heard the story, she got back, walked into her house, said to her husband and two children, ‘I’ve just been to Los Angeles.’ And they almost fainted and then she said fondly, ‘And I’m not going to drink anymore.’ She just knew it was eking away her life and she wanted to do more.”

Shortly after flying to Los Angeles and quitting drinking, she went to Oregon to study with James Beard. She soon became his assistant and worked for him for eleven years. Then Random House needed a cookbook writer to overhaul the outdated cooking bible, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. This is where Judith Jones came onto the scene with her keen vision for talent and editorial skills.  You will have to watch the panel video to hear Judith Jones speak about how Marion became the writer, having never written a word before.

I was so moved by this panel (I watched it online) that I transcribed some of it. It makes me wonder if my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Odell or grandmother, Elizabeth Odell Welch crossed Marion’s path. Perhaps my grandmother knew Marion.  Perhaps my great-grandmother and The Community Kitchen were an inspiration for Marion. The Community Kitchen grew from the same issue Marion promoted: preserving the family meal.

“Yes, I think using your hands is the answer.” — Marion Cunningham

Photo Source: latimes.com

Marion Cunningham ~ Photo Source: latimes.com

“She believed in ordinary home cooking done really well because it had saved her life. She believed it could save everyone’s.” — Laura Shapiro

“Marion was certainly a late bloomer. What really makes a food writer? For one thing we didn’t have such roles in the 19th century into the 20th century. The cook was the cook and not necessarily a writer. But with Marion, the very fact that she was self-taught — she did have a wonderful  Italian grandmother. She learned by doing and observing and loving it and as you (Laura Shapiro) point out, it did save her life because it was that turning point when she was 45 years old and her birthday. As I heard the story, she got back, walked into her house, said to her husband and two children, ‘I’ve just to Los Angeles.’ And they almost fainted and then she said fondly, ‘And I’m not going to drink anymore.’ She just knew it was eking away her life and she wanted to do more.” — Judith Jones, Vice-President and Senior Editor at Knopf (Editor for Julia Child and Marion Cunningham)

Judith Jones is an icon. I enjoyed hearing her speak on this panel. Judith also rescued The Diary of Anne Frank from the reject pile.

“Home cooking is a catalyst that brings people together.” – Marion Cunningham

Judith Jones talks about Marion cooking on Julia Child’s show, touching and packing the ingredients with bare hands. Julia Child questions Marion in her unique voice and tone, “Use your hands?”

Graceful, elegant, and calm, Marion replies, “Yes, I think using your hands is the answer.”

You can watch Marion and Julia make Buttermilk Crumb Muffins in the video below.  I have always been moved by people who overcome life’s obstacles and use their struggles as a catalyst to build a better life and teach others that we are not alone. Marion taught people that we are not alone, but connected through food and story. Food is a way to heal and Marion healed through cooking. It just goes to show how much story is in the food we prepare, eat, and serve our families and friends.

BUTTERMILK CRUMB MUFFINS  Marion Cunningham
2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour2 cups light brown sugar2/3 cup solid vegetable  Home shortening2 teaspoons baking powder1/2 teaspoon baking soda1/2 teaspoon cinnamon1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg1/2 teaspoon salt1 cup buttermilk2 large eggs, well beaten Makes 14 to 16 muffinsPosition rack in oven and preheat to 350°F.  Grease two 12-cup muffin tins.  Put flour and brown sugar into a bowl and stir to mix well.  Break shortening into a few pieces, drop them into the flour, and rub together until mixture looks like coarse bread crumbs.  Set aside 1/2 cup crumb topping.  Add baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt to remaining crumb mixture and stir to mix well.  Add buttermilk and beaten eggs and, mix until well blended, thick and shiny.  Fill muffin tins two-thirds full.  Sprinkle a rounded teaspoon of reserved crumb mixture onto each muffin.  Half-fill any empty muffin molds with water.  Bake 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean.

Source of recipe: http://www.alacartetv.com/baking/recipes/buttermilk_muffins.htm

Here is a link to an interview with Marion on NPR titled, Marion Cunningham’s ‘Lost Recipes’ Cookbook Author Wants to Bring Americans Back to the Kitchen.

Suggested Reading:

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Author: memomuse

I am an arts educator, writer, poet, photographer, and mama. United Arts Council Artist in the Schools and Writer-in-Residence -- I am available to conduct workshops and residencies: Memoir, Writing, Poetry, Spoken Word, Poetry Slams. Contact me for more information. Also available for freelance writing and photography. I am also working on a historic food memoir: http://evanstoncommmunitykitchen.wordpress.com

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