There is no surer sign of a well-loved cookbook than a cracked spine. In kitchens all over the U.S. you’ll likely find just such copies of "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," perhaps held together with wide rubber bands or strips of duct tape. Scroll through the book’s comments on Amazon, and you’ll read references to replacement copies, since the first ones (often wedding gifts) have fallen apart after years of wear and tear. As familiar as that book (and its companion, "The Fannie Farmer Baking Book"), may be, the author is surprisingly not a household name.
Marion Cunningham was a true champion of home cooking, and her story is worth getting to know. Throughout her career, she made it her mission to get people back into the kitchen and around the table, over simple meals made with a good dose of confidence and never too much fuss. “Food is more than fodder,” she wrote. “It is an act of giving and receiving because the experience at table is a communal sharing; talk begins to flow, feelings are expressed, and a sense of well-being takes over.”
In the culinary world, especially among those in the American food revolution of the 1970s and 80s, Cunningham was as well loved as the books she produced. She counted Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Chuck Williams (of Williams-Sonoma), and especially James Beard, the so-called father of American cooking, as close friends.
A lifelong Californian, Cunningham left the state for the first time in 1972, around the age of 50, after working mostly as a homemaker and raising two kids. She traveled to Oregon to take lessons from Beard, and the two hit it off—so much so that Beard invited her to be his assistant. Cunningham helped him launch classes in the Bay Area, and in turn, he helped launch her career.
When the esteemed book editor Judith Jones was looking for someone to revise the Farmer book, Beard suggested Cunningham. (Fannie Merritt Farmer, president of The Boston Cooking School, wrote the original tome in the late 19th century, and is credited with introducing standardized measurements to American cooking. By the late 1970s, however, the book was in dire need of an update.) Cunningham wasn’t sure she was qualified to take on such a big project, but she persevered, with encouragement from Beard and her own firsthand experience facing obstacles. (She overcame two major afflictions—agoraphobia and alcoholism—around the same time she went to Oregon.)
"The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" established Cunningham as a best-selling author, and several other cookbooks followed. ("The Breakfast Book" is among the most beloved, especially for its legendary raised waffles.) In each book, Cunningham’s writing style is at once authoritative and encouraging, practical and warm. Recipes teach the fundamentals in straightforward steps, offering the clearest path to deliciousness. And best of all, they rely on ingredients you can find in any supermarket.
Cunningham’s books are timeless in a way that few glossy, hyper-stylized cookbooks ever become. (Every time I try to purge my groaning shelves of unwanted cookbooks, hers always make the cut. There are simply too many recipes within that I can’t imagine living without.) Each recipe is “sharable” in the very best sense—literally rather than virtually. You won’t find many that will win you new Instagram followers—no ombré patterned crepe cakes, or painstakingly shingled piecrusts, or brownies covered in shards of flaky sea salt (the better to catch a camera’s light). Instead, cook your way through Cunningham’s books and you will be left with the most valuable gift from one food lover to another: a legacy of reliable, well-loved recipes. How lucky we are that Marion Cunningham decided to share her wealth of kitchen know-how with us all.
Watch Marion make her signature cornbread with Martha in this wonderful video from our archive: