- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

Marion Cunningham’s Jaguar sits in her driveway, waiting for her to pilot it across San Francisco’s Bay Bridge six times a week, every week — but more about that later. At first sight, it is her beauty that rivets you. By the time you sit down to her table, you are already distracted by her warmth and welcoming nature.

At 82, Ms. Cunningham is even more striking now than in the portrait of her as a young woman that hangs over her fireplace. The shock of her white hair is like a bolt, contrasting sky-blue eyes that embrace. Then comes a smile that could melt a mound of butter, which, by the way, she isn’t at all apologetic about using to flavor and fortify the meal that awaits.

She has lived in this sprawling ranch house in Walnut Creek, at the foot of Mount Diablo in the warm interior of Northern California, for more than 40 years. From here, she commuted to Oregon to her first cooking classes (at age 45) with James Beard, beginning her amazing friendship with him. It was in this house that she forged through the remaking of “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” at Mr. Beard’s urging, testing and retesting more than 1,800 recipes.

SELLING WALNUTS

At first, she paid property taxes by selling the walnuts that grew here. She raised her children here, cooked with friends, wrote seven cookbooks and gained the admiration and affection of such food stars as Alice Waters; the Mondavi family; Thomas Keller of the celebrated French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, Calif.; and Chuck Williams, founder of the cookware chain Williams-Sonoma.

She has invited a small group this day to preview her menu for a traditional Thanksgiving meal at home.

Ms. Cunningham takes her place at the head of a long table set with a collection of late-19th-century dishes she purchased at an auction when she was a young mother. This was long before she started her food career at midlife. Off-white, with deep green painted vines of wild roses twining across them, the dishes reflect the old-fashioned garden roses she has crowded into teacups to decorate the table along with persimmons and walnuts in the shell that have been scattered about. These simple things make it feel like home.

And that is just how Ms. Cunningham wants it to feel. She believes that the world could be a better place if people spent more time with family, friends and neighbors sharing simple meals around a common table. She will cook Thanksgiving dinner this year, as she has for the past 25 years or so, for a group of about eight friends, including her old friend Chuck Williams. “It’s just a bunch of us strays,” Mr. Williams says.

Ms. Cunningham does it the same each year. “It’s important to keep the purity of [food] traditions,” she says, “because it reminds you of who you are and where you are from.”

Although she’s a best-selling cookbook author, the message she wants to convey has to do with a different way of cooking.

‘LOSING GROUND’

“We are losing ground on learning to cook from those we live with by cooking from books,” the author says. “Cooking is just like driving; you can read every manual you can get your hands on, but until you get in and do it, you won’t really learn how.”

Ms. Cunningham still does a lot of both. She makes the 45-minute drive into San Francisco six days a week to have dinner with old friends (oddly enough, usually in a restaurant) and puts 2,500 miles a month on the Jag.

On the other side of the counter that separates the table from her modest kitchen is her daughter, Catherine, who has learned to cook in this kitchen but has also baked professionally in the kitchens of San Francisco’s renowned Campton Place, as well as for Cocolat, the now-defunct upscale dessert retail shops.

Catherine sets out bowls of sage-scented stuffing, buttery maple-syrup-spiked squash, green beans, a huge fluff of mashed potatoes, colorful and crunchy slaw and cranberry sauce like anyone’s mom would make. As the food collects on the counter, a friend carves up a dark and succulent turkey. Catherine pulls biscuits from the oven (a Beard recipe, often misprinted and complained about, that proves to be in correct form today).

Meanwhile, watermelon pickle, a Cunningham family favorite put up by Catherine, is the only hors d’oeuvre, passed around the table, leaving simply the anticipation of a sumptuous meal ahead as the main appetizer.

As the pickles are sampled, Mr. Williams laments the loss of old-fashioned, thick-rinded melons due to hybridization. And so begins dinner and conversation.

Someone toasts the return of fresh food via farmers markets and heirloom crop varieties. At opposite ends of the table, Ms. Cunningham and Mr. Williams swap stories from their more than 30-year friendship and of cooking, eating and traveling with Mr. Beard. (Ms. Cunningham often chauffeured Mr. Beard, who never learned to drive. Mr. Beard, according to Mr. Williams, relentlessly egged her to drive faster than any men on the road.)

Both recipients of James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Awards in recent years, Ms. Cunningham spent some of her youth as a gas-station attendant, and Mr. Williams had picked crops such as walnuts, almonds, cherries, grapefruit and dates. She asked if he had to climb the dangerous heights of tall date palms. “Aw, well, they weren’t very high yet in those days,” Mr. Williams says, laughing. “I loved doing that.”

More stuffing is passed. Seconds on potatoes, gravy. There’s hardly a break before two pies — a still-warm and incredibly creamy pumpkin pie and a walnut pie with a crust that had a crunchy, almost candied, tooth feel to it — are offered. True to tradition, everyone has overeaten. Still, all accept a slice of both pies. No one passes on the softly whipped cream that makes its way around the table in a two-handled square bowl that is part of an old matched set of dishes.

On Thanksgiving Day, the old dishes will be used again. Dinner will be served at the typical 4 p.m. Maybe there will be only one pie, Ms. Cunningham confides, pumpkin.

“It’s good to experiment with traditional recipes, doctor them up a bit,” she says. When that doesn’t turn out so well, she says, “the good news about bad food is that I don’t eat too much of it, but it is more important to keep the purity of traditions.”

Here are a few of Ms. Cunningham’s traditional Thanksgiving side dishes to add to your own.

Cranberry and walnut coleslaw

Modern coleslaw recipes usually contain mayonnaise, but Ms. Cunningham prefers this older version with cider vinegar.

⅓ cup cider vinegar

⅓ cup vegetable oil

⅓ cup sugar

1 teaspoon celery seed

2 cups shredded red cabbage

2 cups shredded green cabbage

1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

1 cup dried cranberries

¼ cup thinly sliced red onion

Mix vinegar, oil, sugar and celery seed. In large bowl, combine red and green cabbages, walnuts, cranberries and red onion. Add dressing; toss thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate about 3 hours before serving. Stir and drain off any extra dressing. (Slaw will keep about 5 days, covered and refrigerated.) Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Baked squash with butter and maple syrup

Squash was one of the basics of early American diets.

6 pounds acorn or butternut squash

Salt, pepper

4 tablespoons butter

⅓ cup maple syrup

Cut squash in half lengthwise. Scrape out all of seeds and discard. Place squash, cut sides down, on baking sheet and bake in 400-degree oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until squash is easily pierced with fork. Scoop flesh into bowl and mash with potato masher or fork until smooth. Season the salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm.

In small saucepan, combine butter and syrup. Cook over low heat, stirring often, until butter is melted and blended with syrup, about 2 minutes. Stir half of syrup mixture into warm squash. Transfer squash to shallow serving dish. Pour remaining syrup mixture over top. (Squash can be prepared up to 2 days ahead. Keep covered and refrigerated. Reheat in 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes.) Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Sage stuffing

Lots of butter adds richness to this stuffing. Since many people enjoy stuffing more than turkey, bake an extra casserole and serve it on the side.

¼ pound butter

1½ cups finely chopped onions

1½ cups finely chopped celery

9 cups small cubes dried bread

2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage

½ cup finely chopped parsley

1 teaspoon salt

½ to 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

½ to 1 cup turkey or chicken broth

In large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add onion and celery, and cook, stirring often, until vegetables are soft but not browned. In large bowl, place bread cubes, nuts, sage, parsley, salt and pepper to taste. Add onion mixture. Melt remaining butter and add to bowl. Toss well. Slowly add broth, a little at time, tossing mixture, adding only enough to lightly moisten evenly. Use stuffing to loosely fill turkey cavity, or place stuffing in buttered casserole, cover lightly with foil and bake in 325-degree oven 30 minutes if stuffing has been refrigerated or 20 minutes if it’s at room temperature. If a crisp top is desired, remove foil for last 10 minutes. Makes 8 servings.

James Beard’s baking-powder biscuits

This recipe was actually misprinted for years, and people had a hard time making it work. Here’s the correct recipe.

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

⅓ cup vegetable shortening

1 cup milk

In large bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Using a fork, stir until well-mixed. Add shortening, rolling it around in the flour mixture, and break it into 4 or 5 pieces. Mix flour and shortening with fingertips, making little crumbs and letting the bits fall back into the bowl. Continue mixing flour and shortening until most of the flour is mixed with shortening.

Using a fork, mix in milk until flour mixture is moistened. On a lightly floured surface, with floured hands, knead dough about 10 times. Pat dough into 9-inch circle. Using 2-inch cutter, cut out biscuits. Place biscuits on greased baking sheet, touching one another for soft sides or apart for crisper sides. Bake in 425-degree oven 12 to 15 minutes or until golden. Makes about 14 biscuits.

Walnut pie

Although pumpkin pie will always reign as the traditional Thanksgiving dessert, this walnut pie is a surprise second choice that could become a classic, if not a tradition.

Butter pastry (recipe follows)

1½ sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, softened

1½ cups brown sugar, lightly packed

2 medium eggs, lightly beaten

2 cups walnut halves

Unsweetened whipped cream

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Roll out butter pastry to fit 9-inch pie pan. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until browned. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.

In large bowl, beat butter, sugar and eggs until well blended. Stir in walnuts. Pour into partially baked crust, and bake in 350-degree oven 25 minutes. Cool and serve with unsweetened whipped cream. Makes 1 pie, about 8 servings.

BUTTER PASTRY:

1 cup butter

5 tablespoons sugar

1 egg

2¼ cups flour

½ teaspoon salt

In food processor, combine butter, sugar, egg, flour and salt. Using on-off bursts, process to blend well. Gather up dough and press into flattened disk before rolling as directed in walnut-pie recipe.


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