Breakfast is my favorite meal. This does not make me special in any way. When Marion Cunningham began writing her 1987 cookbook, The Breakfast Book, many people told her that breakfast was their favorite meal, but they couldn’t articulate precisely why.
The answer, of course, is waffles. The waffles in The Breakfast Book, to be precise. But I guess Cunningham’s editors thought a full book should contain more recipes.
You could get philosophical about breakfast and try to parse what makes it different from lunch or dinner. There are historical, psychological, and sociological explanations for why you can walk into almost any diner in America before noon and order a platter of pancakes, bacon, and eggs and it will taste delicious, even if the coffee is burned.
For Cunningham, this is the appeal: “Breakfast has remained pure amid all the food trends with their stylish dishes and chic ingredients,” she wrote in her introduction to The Breakfast Book. “The honest simplicity of breakfast is so captivating. The most delicious breakfasts usually derive from the humblest of ingredients (money alone does not buy good food).”
Breakfast, unlike brunch, does not have to impress. There’s no need for booze to lubricate social interactions. You always know what you’ll get. It’s easy to eat and hard to screw up. This makes it the ideal meal for a home cook (one who likes to get up early), and Cunningham always considered herself “the last living home cook,” despite the shelf of cookbooks, the television appearances, and her own celebrity and power within the food world.
(Breakfast also doesn’t include radicchio. This was an important qualification, she told the Chicago Tribune when the book came out. For Cunningham, the ideal salad green would always be iceberg lettuce.)
But Cunningham was more than an oatmeal evangelist: She was a woman on a mission. “I’m hoping that breakfast, with its easy, wholesome honesty, will be an opportunity to be with and share oneself with friends and family,” she wrote in her book’s introduction. She said some variation of this in every interview she gave — and sometimes said it multiple times — over the course of her 40-year career.
A lot of cooks and chefs like to talk about how food builds community. It’s practically required. For Cunningham, though, this was more than just a line to sell books. She sincerely believed that food could save your life. She knew this because it had saved hers.
As an older woman, Cunningham would speak nostalgically to interviewers about her childhood in Glendale, California, a suburb of Los Angeles (which she always pronounced “Las Ahn-geh-leez”). She remembered how women would talk to each other as they hung up the laundry in the backyard every Monday and how they would swap recipes and care for one another’s children. They likely did this because the Great Depression was happening — Cunningham was born in 1922 — and no one had money for automatic clothes dryers or eating out in restaurants. But Cunningham still thought life would be nicer if people were poor again.
Her parents both had serious health problems — her mother had tuberculosis, and her father had lost a leg above the knee to Raynaud’s syndrome and was also an alcoholic — and Marion was an only child. She first became interested in food by watching her Italian grandmother in the kitchen. When she was 13, she taught herself how to cook by asking the neighbors for recipes. Consider for a moment why a 13-year-old would need to learn to cook. And why that 13-year-old would learn to value having other adults around besides her parents.
Although Cunningham wasn’t a great student — she considered school an excuse to socialize — she loved to read and checked out many cookbooks from her local library, something that would become a lifelong habit. After high school, she worked a series of odd jobs. The only one she enjoyed was running a service station during World War II, but she quit after her husband, Robert Cunningham, whom she’d initially met in kindergarten, complained that she smelled like motor oil.
After the war, Robert got a job in a San Francisco law firm and the Cunninghams moved north to Walnut Creek, about 20 miles east of Oakland, where Marion became a housewife. Robert was uninterested in food: “He doesn’t like homemade bread, and he doesn’t like vegetables,” Marion told New York Times food writer Marian Burros. “The only green thing he says he likes is money.” But Marion enjoyed cooking for their two children, Mark and Catherine. She was attached to her home not because she aspired to be a domestic goddess but because home was the only place that felt tolerable.
To Cunningham, the outside world was terrifying. She insisted on giving birth to her children on the ground floor of the hospital because she hated elevators. She refused to drive across bridges. A doctor later connected her agoraphobia to a previously undiagnosed thyroid issue and prescribed medicine that made her phobias go away. Before that, though, she drank. She only stopped when she realized she was becoming an alcoholic; she knew the signs from watching her own father go through severe withdrawal when she was a child. She couldn’t go to Alcoholics Anonymous because she had to stay home with her children, but she followed the steps on her own.
For a distraction, she began taking cooking classes. Many of those available to housewives in the 1960s weren’t so much about cooking techniques as carving pineapples into centerpieces and constructing desserts to set on fire, but she didn’t care. “I was interested in meeting people who liked to cook so we could talk about cooking,” Cunningham remembered later. “That was the whole point.”
And then in the summer of 1972, her life took a turn. She learned that James Beard, her favorite cookbook writer, was teaching a cooking class in Seaside, Oregon. At the time, she was 50 years old and had never been out of the state of California. But Robert encouraged her to go. On the day Cunningham left, her friend Ruth Reichl later wrote in the Los Angeles Times, she stood on the steps of the airplane crying. “If you don’t get on that plane,” her son, Mark, told her, “you’ll never go anywhere, you’ll never do anything, and you’ll never be anybody.”
James Beard changed Marion Cunningham’s life. Within a year, he had invited her to become his teaching assistant. At first she was sure he had made a mistake — there were much better cooks in the class, she thought — but he was less interested in her cooking technique than her gregarious personality. In a Beard class, everyone cooked simultaneously, each at their own station, and he needed someone who could make the students feel comfortable. Soon, Cunningham was flying around the country — and eventually to Europe — with him.
But that wasn’t all. In 1974, Beard’s editor, the ubiquitous Judith Jones, was looking for someone to update The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Originally published in 1896 as The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, it had been at the cutting edge of its time; its author, Fannie Merritt Farmer, was the first to introduce standardized measurements in home cooking. But by the 1970s, it had a reputation for stodginess and was overdue for a revision. Beard thought that Cunningham, with her old-fashioned tastes and devotion to home cooking, would be a natural. She had never published anything, not even an article, but when Beard showed some of her letters to Jones, the editor was convinced. Against her own better judgment, Cunningham took the job.
It took five years to test and rewrite 1,800 recipes. Cunningham was paid $30,000 but estimated she lost money from the deal after she finished buying groceries. (Perhaps a writer who wasn’t a novice would have negotiated a better contract?) Still, after its publication in 1979, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook established her as part of the culinary world. She became friends with Julia Child and Edna Lewis. She introduced Beard to Alice Waters. She supported then-emerging food writers like Reichl and Jeffrey Steingarten and Kim Severson. Her home phone never stopped ringing. Her den-mothering wasn’t a kindness, she said; visiting was something she always loved to do, and it was a distraction from her anxieties.
The Breakfast Book was the first book that Cunningham published under her own name. (She used the royalties to buy herself a Jaguar.) True to her mission as a home cook, she did all her recipe testing in her own modest kitchen in Walnut Creek using ingredients from the supermarket and an electric oven (she was never able to upgrade to gas because she couldn’t get a line into her house). But she had the one thing that was absolutely essential to any cookbook writer: a good palate.
“When you’re standing next to somebody,” she said, “and they put a spoon into a pot and taste it and can say, ‘This is lacking salt,’ ‘This needs more tarragon’ — if they can do that kind of analysis, and then when you taste it, it appeals to more people in the room, it’s a gift.”
That kind of appeal is what The Breakfast Book offers. The recipes are simple and precise. There are no complicated diagrams or glossy glamour shots of Cunningham puttering around her kitchen. But everything works as promised in the headnotes. The “heavenly hots” pancakes (“they are heavenly and certainly should be served hot”), made with sour cream and a smidge of cake flour in a reversal of the usual fat-to-flour pancake ratio, are indeed so light they practically hover over the plate. I was overcome by how good the fresh ginger muffins were. The oxymoronic-sounding oatmeal souffle — oatmeal and whipped egg whites folded together and then baked — is truly a surprising and good way to eat oatmeal. The flavors and texture of kedgeree are wonderful.
Cunningham makes no effort to embrace the food trends of the ’80s. (There is one especially glaring absence: bagels. Cunningham called them “the poor man’s doughnut.” I choose to pity her. She lived in California before the West Coast bagel boom and probably never had a good one.) Some of the recipes, like milk toast — toast soaked in a bowl of warm milk — and malted milk, are deliberately old-fashioned; perhaps those were the same milk toast and malted milk she made for herself when she first began cooking as a teenager.
The most tried and true recipe in the book is raised waffles, which Cunningham always served whenever anyone visited her at home. It has its origins in the 19th century; she first encountered the recipe while working on Fannie Farmer, and she introduced it in The Breakfast Book as “the best waffle I know.” I think it may be the best waffle anyone has ever known. They’re made with yeast, so the batter has to sit out on the counter overnight to rise, but when they come out of the waffle iron, they’re crisp and light and perfect. Other writers have attempted to gussy them up over the years (Bon Appétit added brown butter and buttermilk), but the combination of taste and convenience in the original recipe is impossible to improve.
Most of all, the book is for ordinary cooks, for the people who may lack the fancy equipment or high-end ingredients, who may even hate to cook but are still trying. Not everyone is capable of whipping up dinner from a few random ingredients in the refrigerator. Some people think tossing a salad means throwing greens from one end of the kitchen to the other. Some people depend on recipes, even for something as ostensibly simple as cinnamon toast. Some are just afraid of trying something new. These are the people for whom Cunningham was writing — and maybe for her 13-year-old self, too. It’s not the food that matters, she believed — although the recipe writing in The Breakfast Book goes a long way toward ensuring that the food is good — but the gesture of cooking it.
Cooking and serving food build personal relationships. This is what gave Cunningham’s life meaning. Later in her life, after her husband had died and her children had left home, Cunningham got into the habit of driving her Jaguar across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco every night for dinner in a restaurant with friends. “I think it matters,” she said of investing in good relationships. “I do. I think it matters a lot. Otherwise, we’re alone.”
Aimee Levitt is a freelance writer in Chicago.