Obituary: Marion Cunningham / Advocate for the virtues of home cooking

Feb. 11, 1922 - July 11, 2012

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Marion Cunningham, a former California homemaker who overcame agoraphobia later in life to become one of America's most famous and enthusiastic advocates of home cooking, died on Wednesday in Walnut Creek, Calif. She was 90.

Ms. Cunningham, who had Alzheimer's disease, had been admitted to a hospital on Tuesday with respiratory problems, Jon Carroll, a family friend, said in confirming the death. She had been living at an assisted-care home in Walnut Creek.

"More than anyone else, she gave legitimacy to home cooking," said Michael Bauer, the executive food editor of The San Francisco Chronicle. "She took what many people would say was housewife food and really gave it respect by force of her own personality."

Like many others, Ruth Reichl, the author and former restaurant critic for The New York Times, came to regard Ms. Cunningham as a mother figure.

"She was the glue that held the nascent food movement together," Ms. Reichl said, "the touchstone, the person you checked in with to find out who was doing what all over the country."

Ms. Cunningham's most enduring trait may have been her ability to make even novice cooks feel as if they could accomplish something in the kitchen. Indeed, she took many of them under her wing and drew from them for her popular book "Learning to Cook."

Ms. Cunningham -- who loved to go to the supermarket and peer into the baskets of startled strangers, whom she would then interview about their cooking skills -- made it her life's work to champion home cooking and preserve the family supper table.

"No one is cooking at home anymore, so we are losing all the wonderful lessons we learn at the dinner table," she said in an interview in 2002.

"People are living like they are in motels," she added. "They get fast food and take it home and turn on the TV. Schools and sports groups have soccer practice or what have you during what used to be called the dinner hour. We don't need more competitive sports. We need to sit facing people with great regularity, so we are making an exchange and we are learning to be civilized."

Marion Enwright was born on Feb. 11, 1922, in Los Angeles to Joseph Enwright and the former Maryann Spelta.

She spent the first half of her adult life raising two children, Mark and Catherine -- who survive her -- and tending the ranch home she shared with her husband, Robert Cunningham, a medical malpractice lawyer, in Walnut Creek.

For much of that time she struggled with agoraphobia, a fear of open and public places. It was so intense at times that she could barely cross the Bay Bridge to San Francisco.

Prompted by a friend's invitation in 1972 to go to Oregon to attend cooking classes conducted by the renowned food writer James Beard, Ms. Cunningham overcame her phobia and headed out of the state for the first time.

Beard took to this tall, blue-eyed homemaker, and for the next 11 years she was his assistant, helping him to establish cooking classes in the Bay Area. The job gave her a ringside seat to a period in American cooking when regional food, organic produce and a new way of cooking and eating were just becoming part of the culinary dialogue.

Her association with Beard, who died in 1985, gave her the big break of her career. He passed her name to Judith Jones, the well-known New York City culinary editor, who was looking for someone to rewrite "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook." That project led to seven more cookbooks; her own television show, "Cunningham & Company," on the Food Network in its early days; and a longstanding cooking column for The Chronicle.

Ms. Cunningham bought a Jaguar with her first royalty check from "The Breakfast Book," one of her most enduring cookbooks. The Jaguar became identified with her, and she would drive it to a different Bay Area restaurant every night, sometimes logging 2,500 miles a month.

Along the way she collected a passel of friends who changed how America cooked and ate, including her close friend Chuck Williams, whose kitchenware company, Williams-Sonoma, was just getting started.

One of the people she discovered was a young Alice Waters, who was cooking organic and local food at a little restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., called Chez Panisse.

Ms. Cunningham brought Beard to the restaurant in 1974, and he put it on the culinary map, marking the beginnings of California cuisine and the modern organic movement.


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