On Wednesday, a culinary legend passed away at the age of 90. She wasn’t a five-star restaurant chef, and didn’t graduate from a culinary school. She was Marion Cunningham, author of several cookbooks (including the revised Fannie Farmer Cookbook), cooking instructor, and cooking television show host. As the New York Times put it in the title of her obituary, she was a “home cooking advocate.”
When the article was published on Wednesday, my friend Gabrielle Langholtz, Editor-in-Chief of Edible Manhattan/Edible Brooklyn posted (or attempted to post) it to my Facebook wall. “Who does this remind you of?” she asked. I couldn’t think of many others who neatly fit the descriptor. Except… “This must be a very limited field, to be known as a ‘home cooking advocate’ when you pass away,” I quipped back. But Cunningham’s story and legacy were so inspiring that I blushed from the notion of being thought of as one, too. I should hope that if I were to die suddenly, while riding my bike, people would be more inspired to cook at home because they read my obit.
Yes, I am that crazy. People have often said that there was no point in pushing home cooking, because it was a dying craft, wasn’t in line with the times, and most notably, wasn’t something you could sell for a profit. But maybe that’s why advocating for it is so important. There would actually be no need for the label of “home cooking advocate” if there wasn’t a dearth of home cooking going on today. In previous generations, this would be like saying “shoelace-tying advocate,” but alas, it’s not the same world anymore. In Cunningham’s words, as quoted in the obituary, “No one is cooking at home anymore, so we are losing all the wonderful lessons we learn at the dinner table.” What are some of those lessons? That food is not mere sustenance, but something to respect, perhaps. That each person around you has their own way of cracking an egg. That you enrich your personal skills as well as health and happiness when you make a meal from scratch.
They are none too difficult lessons to come by. Anyone can “advocate” by just cooking, for your friends, family or yourself. You can also busy yourself doing unprofitable things like volunteering at a soup kitchen, teaching a bunch of kids how to make sushi rolls (which I was doing Wednesday at a day camp), or writing a recipe blog. There are ever more creative ways to step out in this field, like producing an online cooking show or throwing a themed potluck. I’d like to think they’re working, giving people a new outlet for creativity and passion for food. Little by little, anyone can be the next Marion Cunningham, and reap the reward of simply knowing that you’re making a positive impact.
A few weeks ago, I began a project that I knew wouldn’t become a large-scale enterprise; the concept is to deliver DIY “dinner kits” selected from the farmers market along with a recipe to anyone’s door who orders them. This is handy in the city, where the Greenmarkets are open only until around 4pm, before people get home from work, and so many of us order take-out instead of bumbling through a supermarket, hungry and confused. Farmers Market Fix, as I’ve dubbed the service, is never going to eclipse the former option, especially when subway cars are plastered with ads for online restaurant delivery hubs. But I’ve determined it’s a worthy alternative, for those who might seek it or those who don’t yet know it could be one, and therefore am keeping at it for home cooking’s sake. Additionally, I’ve been teaching a handful of cooking classes this summer through Skillshare, which advocates for learning from people around you, in unique fields that they’ve honed. (You can always try teaching yourself, considering everyone is the best chef of something.)
Marion, I’m sorry I never read much of your work, although I have volumes of old magazine articles and cookbooks by James Beard and Alice Waters that mention you fondly. I find it fascinating that you struggled with agoraphobia, a fear of public spaces such as in big cities, but overcame it through your interest in food, and were a homemaker before your career. Meanwhile, I’d find it impossible to maintain my cooking enthusiasm if it weren’t for crowded cities filled with people to cook with like New York, having no family at home of my own. I think it’s fantastic that home-cooking activities and modes for “advocacy” can be so varied yet rooted in everyday routine and common sense ethos. There will be many more home cooking advocates to come in this century, I’m sure. Especially now that it’s clear this is something you can be.