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Reading…..Marion Cunningham

March 16, 2011

A few weeks ago, if you had asked me who Marion Cunningham was, I would have replied, “Richie Cunningham’s mom.  Of course.”  I’m sorry to say that I had never heard of Marion Cunningham the iconic cookbook author.   Rest assured, I am making up for lost time. 

Marion Cunningham first came to my attention through Molly Wizenberg, over at Orangette.  I’ve mentioned Molly before.  She and Heidi Swanson are sort of my culinary It girls.  I follow both blogs religiously, always amazed by Molly’s sparkling writing and Heidi’s gorgeous photography.  Molly’s last few recipes have all come from The Breakfast Book.  Since I’ve never known her to spend so much focused blog time on one cookbook before, I figured I had best check it out.  Unfortunately, my library did not have The Breakfast Book, but did have copies of The Supper Book and The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.  The latter is what Marion Cunningham is perhaps most noted for:  a complete revision of the Boston Cooking School Cookbook, published in 1896.  Last week’s rainy weather found me curled up with both books, completely fascinated.  Both are the kind of cookbooks you want to sit down and read, as opposed to merely flipping through haphazardly looking at shiny pictures.  Her writing is straight forward and precise, with a charming old fashioned school marmish tone.  From the pages, she appears to me a kindly, auntish sort of figure, one who would be a patient teacher in the kitchen, but at the same time probably not one to put up with laziness or  slaphappy ways.  She emphasizes ritual and repeatedly focuses on the respect and joy that should be shown to food and mealtime.  I felt both inspired and slightly admonished when I read this opening passage in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook:

“Every meal should be a small celebration.  If you acknowledge so joyous a fact of life, the pride you take in your efforts in the kitchen won’t be confined to company occasions.  You’ll find it rewarding every day to see that the table is nicely set so that you won’t have to jump up all the time to fetch things and disrupt the conversation.  Butter should be in a butter dish with its own knife; milk in a pitcher; bottled sauces and condiments, unless the jar is particularly pretty, should be removed from their commercial containers and placed in small bowls with spoons.  If your table looks like a hash-house counter, you encourage people to eat accordingly.”

Ahem….point taken.  We rarely eat out, and enjoy most of our meals together at home, as a family.  Still, I’m afraid Marion would not approve of my table most nights.  And, when I really think about it, especially taking into consideration that most important first line, “Every meal should be a small celebration,” neither do I.  If I take the time to prepare a home cooked meal, I should also take the time to serve and  eat it properly.  I’m not saying I’m going to be heading to the craft store to make glittery place cards for a “tablescape” a la Sandra Lee. I don’t think Marion Cunningham would approve of that sort of over the top stuff either.   But it’s not asking too much to use a butter dish.  Or matching cloth napkins.  And maybe even breaking out the nice china on occasion.

I don’t mean to convey the idea that she is overly prim and proper.  Not at all.  In fact, The Supper Book comes out as the direct antithesis to over the top gourmet dinners.  Obviously, we’re supper people around here, and I love this book’s homey, cozy approach to the evening meal.  In fact, you can probably expect to see some Marion Cunningham inspired recipes around these parts in the future.

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