We are losing our living touchstones to a post-war pre-industrial food past. That’s the first thought that came to mind when I heard of Marion Cunningham’s passing. Journalist Kim Severson has written a lovely obit about Mrs. Cunningham for the New York Times.
She was a cookbook author, teacher, mother hen to a generation of fighters for real food that’s cooked at home. I wasn’t fortunate to have a personal relationship with Mrs. Cunningham. I came to know her through her books. She was one of a handful of cookbook authors who became my mentor “moms” as I taught myself how to cook. Yes, my mom cooked, but her true skill was her way of putting people together around the table. For forming a basic culinary palate I had to look elsewhere. Through her books Marion Cunningham became that extra mom I needed to learn about the basics of American food and its link to home and the hearth of our Chambers stove. I have vivid memories of standing in my mom’s kitchen with Fannie Farmer open on the counter dusted with flour as I baked my way through the book.
In our time of chef focused food mania we hear about the legacies created as young chefs pass through master’s kitchens then move on to forge their own culinary point of view. Less attention is given to the great cookbook authors and teachers who through the millions of copies of books and hundreds of classes mentor masses of home cooks valiantly keeping the home stoves alight, heroically creating simply good food on a daily basis for family and friends instead of turning to the “convenience” of prepared and take out food.
Obviously, not all of us learn to cook as apprentices in professional kitchens. Even for those who do, often a first link to a love of cooking comes during pre-teen or college years alone in the kitchen with a mentor or friend in the form of a gifted cookbook author who coaxes us along and encourages first, our fledgling experimentation then later, our skill and deepening repertoire.
With our love of the new, the culinary “show”, I fear that the work of a key generation of teachers who remembered what food was before industrialization will be shunted aside. Let’s not let that happen. We can honor Marion Cunningham and keep her extraordinary legacy alive by gifting her books to youngsters eager to learn how to put good food on the table.