The 'Fannie Farmer' of 1980 Is a Californian Who Says a Cook's Biggest Problem Is 'Timidity'

updated 01/21/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/21/1980 01:00AM

Ever since Fannie Merritt Farmer published the first Boston Cooking School Cookbook in 1896—one of the first to give precise measurements and offer complicated French recipes along with basic American ones—it has been a classic for generations of women. The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, as it came to be called, was updated by her heirs after the original Fannie died at age 57 in 1915. Still, it was not until the current 12th edition that she had an official successor: California housewife Marion Cunningham, who spent four years revising the book and testing all of its 1,839 recipes. Cunningham had been recommended to the publisher by noted food critic and author James Beard, her friend and mentor. The latest Fannie Farmer Cookbook (Alfred A. Knopf, $12.95) is the fastest-selling edition ever, with 370,000 copies in print. Ironically, Los Angeles-born Cunningham, 59, recalls that her own Italian mother was not a good cook. "But I loved food," she says, "so I had to learn." Married since 1942 to a San Francisco lawyer named Robert Cunningham, who specializes in medical malpractice cases, Marion decided to give cooking classes in suburban Walnut Creek in 1970. Two years later she was taken under Beard's wing. Together they taught in San Francisco, New York and at the Gritti Palace in Venice. Over cinnamon rolls in her modest kitchen, the new Fannie whipped up a batch of fresh ideas on the American way of cooking for Christopher P. Andersen of PEOPLE.

Are you trying to make us all gourmet cooks?

There is no such thing as gourmet cooking; there is simply good cooking. Pretentiousness is indefensible. So many people cook competitively instead of getting legitimate personal pleasure out of it. They love to make beef Wellington to impress their friends. I hate romanticized kitchens with baskets, dry herbs and copper pans hanging from the ceiling. That's all very artful, but how does the food taste? And there are the wine snobs! This status-conscious attitude is turning food into a four-letter word.

Are you ever guilty of this?

Sure, I recognize that quality in myself. Somehow, telling someone you're making a roast chicken doesn't get you the same look of respect as telling them you're making a sauce Robert.

What did you intend to accomplish in the new Fannie Farmer cookbook?

To de-Frenchify the atmosphere that pervades so many of our cookbooks and to restore a certain authenticity to the nebulous thing called American food. This book is intended for personal cooking in private kitchens. Sure, fine chefs can do wonderful fine dishes, but they are predictable. The great thing about the nonprofessional is the distinctly individual touch. Why do you think that people have always bragged that "my Aunt Sarah makes the best cupcakes in the world"? They may not be perfect according to some books, but they can still taste the best.

Are we obsessed with food?

Food is an aesthetic experience of man and as such he feels very partisan as to what constitutes good cooking. In this existentialist age—this "Me Generation"—cooking offers another form of expression. Some people write, some paint or play the piano—but many more of us cook. And more and more men are going into the kitchen, either because their wives are working late at the office or because they now view cooking as a legitimate masculine hobby.

Are American tastes really any different today than when the first Fannie Farmer Cookbook was published in 1896?

Very different in some ways. In others we have come full circle. At the turn of the century American cuisine was composed of three parts: simple down-home cooking with roots in earthy regional dishes like clam chowder and apple brown Betty; French cooking, brought here primarily by the chefs in big hotels, and the sort of fanciful Victorian style where you were supposed to serve cake tied up in a satin bow and lamb chops wearing paper panties. We are going back to the basic, pure American cooking and dispensing with much of the other two.

How did that evolve ?

In the 1920s people were still baking their own bread, canning preserves, whipping up most things from scratch. Then the 1930s brought refrigerators in the home and what were called "convenience" foods—mostly canned goods and mixes. Frozen packaging became popular in time for World War II, when there was a sudden shift in the labor market as many women left to work in the war effort. Service men and women brought back a taste for foreign food, and that was heightened by the postwar tourist boom. From then until the mid-1950s the kitchen was not an alluring place. It was sealed off from the rest of the house; magazine advertisements showed food by itself or people sitting in a formal, candle-lit dining room. The kitchen was a very unchic place to be.

What happened to change that?

From 1965 until 1975 there was another dramatic shift in the tastes of Americans. People became incredibly diet-and health-conscious. The ecology movement alerted us to the dangers of preservatives. Vegetarianism became more widespread, and for some reason we started insisting on more intense taste from our food. Curries were, in fact, quite popular back in the original Fannie Farmer's time. Now they're making a comeback. Other highly spiced foods like Szechuan and Mexican dishes are also becoming popular. In a word, we demand flavor. Because of this, I have increased the flavors of some dishes in the book, while decreasing the amounts of sugar and salt for health reasons.

What other changes ha ve you made ?

Many of the original recipes are the same, but I've added more grains, fresh salads and cereals. There are also new recipes for tacos, enchiladas, guacamole, cioppino—the fish soup that is popular in California—and a simple ground-beef-and-spinach dish called "Little Joe's." I've also introduced a chapter entitled "Filled Things," with recipes for quiches, pita bread, crepes and pizza.

What was dropped?

About one-tenth of the recipes were inappropriate for today's cooks. Gelatin salads, for example, were deleted. Most of the canned and frozen ingredients were replaced with fresh. Reflecting the trend away from mixed drinks, cocktails were also dropped as a separate category and replaced with a chapter on wines.

Should there be a place for canned goods in cooking?

Sure you can use them. I even use canned tomatoes and tuna in the book once in a while. But if you merely weld these various preparations together, then cooking becomes a spectator sport. It's really better to start with at least some raw materials.

What do you think of frozen meals?

TV dinners don't count; if you just stick it in the oven, you are simply not cooking. But I can't condemn all frozen foods. Stouffer's makes some good meals, for example. Others are atrocious. It depends on the quality of the ingredients.

What about fast foods?

The very phrase—fast food—sums up a sad reality about American life: Many people still choose to gobble down a greasy hamburger at some counter and call it a meal.

Are certain fast foods better than others?

That's like asking if Jane Austen's books are better than Jacqueline Susann's; it's all a matter of preference. McDonald's does a pretty good job of handling a huge volume without compromising on quality. Venerable, wonderful Colonel Sanders started out with a good, wholesome product—but even he has criticized the recent cooking.

What are your favorite things to eat?

Anything that's fattening: pasta, ice cream, candy, mayonnaise. Really, there is very little I won't eat.

For the average cook, what is the main obstacle in the kitchen?

Timidity. Also, trusting cookbook authors. Most people follow a recipe in a book—often it was never actually tested—and when it doesn't work they blame themselves. They don't realize that there are so many variables—maybe you're not using precisely the same ingredients—that somewhere along the road you have to take the wheel yourself. Keep testing critically as you go along, until you get the flavor you want.

What upsets you most about today's eating habits?

The breakdown of the family dinner hour. So much is happening to make us all anonymous. The one spot to displace loneliness is at the table, but instead we stand alone in front of the refrigerator door gulping down food. I don't believe in unnatural formality, either, but this is not civilized behavior. People don't share anymore. The lesson is that we're not alone; we're all part of the human herd. We suffer a great loss by not eating for reasons other than keeping alive.

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