The Daily Meal Hall of Fame: Marion Cunningham

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A mother-figure to much of the American food world, she made it a mission to demystify cooking for everybody

Cunningham made it her business to take the mystery out of cooking.

The Daily Meal is announcing the inductees into its Hall of Fame for 2017. The Hall of Fame honors key figures, both living and dead, from the world of food. We are introducing the honorees one per weekday. Our eighth inductee is Marion Cunningham. For all Daily Meal Hall of Fame inductees, please click here.

In the food world, Marion Cunningham (1922–2012) was known as everybody’s mother. She was the person we all checked in with on a regular basis, the person who connected us, who kept the community together. She knew everyone, and was always ready to drop whatever she was doing to come to your rescue.

But she was more than that. In the sixties, when the important food people were all male and/or busily bringing us European fare, Cunningham was America’s advocate. She believed in what we had here; her expertise was in cakes, cookies, and classics like fried chicken, brownies, and deviled eggs. She had absolutely no use for fancy French affectations, and once offered to serve as the spokesperson for iceberg lettuce. (She loved the stuff.)

More than anything, though, Cunningham was the person who proved that cooking could be a way for women to access their own power. A housewife who loved being in the kitchen, she burst out of an unsatisfying suburban life at the age of 45. She left the state of California for the first time to take cooking lessons with James Beard, and in a sense never came back. Before long she had become Beard’s assistant and was traveling the world at his side. When cookbook editor Judith Jones was searching for someone to rewrite Fannie Farmer’s classic late-nineteenth-century Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, Beard sent off a packet of Cunningham’s letters to Jones, suggesting her for the job. She got it.More than anything, though, Cunningham was the person who proved that cooking could be a way for women to access their own power.

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Cunningham went on to write a series of seminal cookbooks of her own, including the beloved Breakfast Book, which contains the world’s best pancake recipes. A woman who did nothing by half measures, Marion placed signs all over her neighborhood offering free cooking lessons before writing Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham. “I never realized,” she said afterward, “how strange the language of cooking is to people who don’t speak it. When I asked one of my students to toss a salad, he put the bowl on a table, went across the room and began throwing the ingredients into it.” Cunningham made it her business to take the mystery out of cooking. Nobody ever did it better.