California cooking icon Marion Cunningham died yesterday at the age of 90 from complications due to Alzheimer's. Famed updater of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, celebrated author, cooking teacher and television host, Cunningham profoundly influenced the cooking habits of Americans.
That is to say, without her guidance -- her cookbooks with recipes reportedly tested on an everyday electric stove, her columns for the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle -- a lot of people in the late 1970s and '80s wouldn't have learned to cook at all.
As is often the case when someone well-known and highly influential dies, the people who knew Cunningham, a lot of them writers, are rushing to share their fondest memories.
In The New York Times, Kim Severson recalls Cunningham as reflective about her mission:
"It's very tempting when we are old to become a missionary, to see the world as lacking," she told me when I first met her. She was 77. "I really don't want to be guilty of that," she continued. "I don't want to be preachy. But I wish there were a national law that made everyone cook steadily for two months. Then, if they don't like it, they can quit."
In the San Francisco Chronicle, critic Michael Bauer offers an eloquent tribute, full of rich, lovely details, including this tidbit about Cunningham's besting of her demons:
Her career in food started late, when she was in her 50s. She was a self-confessed alcoholic who gave up drinking when she found her passion in cooking. She was crippled by phobias, including agoraphobia. When she decided to take James Beard's cooking class in Seaside, Ore., she had never been out of the state and was even afraid to cross the Bay Bridge. She prepared for the trip to Oregon by buying three airline tickets to Los Angeles. She took two friends to sit on either side of her, and flew to Southern California for lunch.
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There's something perfect about how Cunningham fought her own phobias in the process of helping people get over theirs. So many people are terrified of cooking, even if they don't phrase their fear explicitly as fear. They worry they'll take the time, follow a recipe, and still meet failure in the form of a blackened casserole or a powder-dry boiled egg. We have an old family friend who is so insecure about her cooking ability, she won't have friends over for dinner anymore, which saddens both her and her friends. She knows how to cook, but she's not comfortable doing so. She has many questions, endless insecurities.
We know just the book to get her.
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