October 25, 2009 | Short Order

Friends of Marion Cunningham say the prolific cookbook writer is near death

        Friends of Marion Cunningham have heard she is near death at 87 in a hospice in Walnut Creek, California. The tall, handsome Californian with intense blue eyes was a housewife who found her métier assisting James Beard in his cooking classes across the country for eleven years before becoming a food legend herself.  She was a celebrated baker, the editor of the 12th Edition of Fanny Farmer, cookbook author, newspaper columnist and Food Network regular. She had never left California till the day she found the courage to get on a plane for Oregon for a class with James Beard on the beach at Seaside.  “It is Oz,” she wrote him “And you are the wizard.”

       Her friend Billy Cross, who with Michael James brought the Great Chefs Cooking School to the Robert Mondavi Vineyard, sent me this celebration of Marion this morning:

       “I am sitting in my garden here on the Pacific Coast of Mexico pondering the life and near death of my dear friend Marion Cunningham. She meant everything to me. I was introduced to her by Jim Beard in the Fall of 1972 when I had just met Michael James and Simone “Simca” Beck and I was working in the Upstairs Bar of Chez Panisse.  Jim suggested that she take cooking classes from Michael at our flat on Telegraph Hill.  I assisted in the kitchen.  Well, it was love at first sight.
         She was fun, smart, complicated, complex, crazy in that wonderful Southern California beach girl sort of way of the 1920's, 30's and 40's.  She never lost that quality.  Apart from what she knew about cooking and eating and food in general she knew more about a car than any man I ever knew because she worked at a gas station and auto mechanic shop in San Diego while her husband, Robert, was in the Marine Corps during World War II.
         I traveled all over the world with her.  She came to Mexico many times with me, starting in 1986 when we rented a house together in Oaxaca for a couple of weeks.  She came to visit Michael and me in the South of France at Simca's farm, Bramafam.  She worked for us in our catering business. Marion cooked with us for 10 years in Frances Dinkelspiel Green’s kitchen in Atherton for the 4th of July. Mrs. Green normally had 250-350 people for sit down lunch in the garden.  Marion made wonderful, mind boggling, home made desserts. My favorite was her bread pudding made with baguette.  Her wonderful son, Mark came with her several years and helped her in the service of the dessert.  There were always a minimum of 10 desserts at these affairs.
         When Mrs. Green’s youngest daughter, Florence, got married the Greens had 300 people for a sit down dinner and dance in the garden. Michel Richard did the cake, flown in from L.A. on 6 passenger seats (too fragile to put in baggage). When the 10 dishwashers got drunk and passed out, Marion said, “OK, you guys… strip down to your shorts…in the pool."  And Marion and 20 waiters washed all of the plates, silverware and glassware in the swimming pool !!!!  What  a sight.  We laughed until we ached.  That was Marion.

         I wanted to let you know about her condition and all of us close to her wish for her not to suffer any longer.”

         It was Beard who introduced Marion Cunningham to Chuck Williams (Williams-Sonoma) and she began to work with him and later with General Manager Jim Nassikas organizing the cooking courses at the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco.  Beard proposed her to Knopf as the ideal candidate to edit the 12th Edition of Fanny Farmer (811 pages). She went on to edit the 13th edition also and the Fannie Farming Baking Book. She later wrote The Breakfast Book in 1988, The Supper Book, Cooking with Children, Marion Cunningham’s Good Eating, Lost RecipesMeals to Share. Her column appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times.
         She and a baking friend started the “Baker’s Dozen” in 1989, inviting baking enthusiasts to gather in San Francisco and solve the mysteries of baking. They soon had more than 200 members.  From that emerged The Baker’s Dozen Cookbook. Over seventy episodes of her television series Cunningham & Company appear regularly on the Food Network. In 1993, Les Grand Dames d’Escoffier honored her for her culinary contributions.  Reading Billy Cross’s letter, I am sad I never got to know Marion. I recall book parties Jim Beard hosted in his home for her. I remember her elegance, those eyes, the braid wrapped round her head…and of course, the Great Coffee Cake.

Click here to return to the Short Order Archive

Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers