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Cookbook author Marion Cunningham dies

SAN FRANCISCO -- Marion Cunningham, the home-cooking champion whose legacy can be found in the food-spattered pages of "Fannie Farmer" cookbooks in kitchens across America, has died at age 90.

Cunningham, who had been ill for some years, died yesterday of complications from Alzheimer's disease at the John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Best known for her revisions of the classic "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," in 1979 and again in 1990, Cunningham also wrote several other books, including "The Breakfast Book," "Cooking with Children," and "Lost Recipes." She also hosted a television series, "Cunningham & Company," that aired on the Food Network.

Though she moved in rarefied circles that included culinary luminaries such as James Beard and Alice Waters, Cunningham resisted trendiness. She was an ardent supporter of the humble iceberg lettuce and specialized in simple, straightforward recipes.

Along with that approach went a deep concern about the disappearance of the home-cooked meal eaten en famille. "Home cooking is a catalyst that brings people together," she wrote in the forward to "Lost Recipes." "We are losing the daily ritual of sitting down around the table (without the intrusion of television), of having the opportunity to interact, to share our experiences and concerns, to listen to others." Waters, a longtime friend and the force behind the groundbreaking Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., said Cunningham preached the value of food quality and home cooking long before it was fashionable, and in doing so became the nucleus of what grew into the modern food movement.

A self-taught cook, Cunningham didn't take her first steps toward a cookbook career until her mid-40s when she traveled to Oregon to take a class that Beard, then a chef and food writer, was teaching.

"It was just a magic gathering," she said in a 1983 New York Times story. "To have someone come right out of the pages at you. That's really what changed things for me."

Beard subsequently invited her to be his assistant and, later, recommended her for the job when publisher Alfred A. Knopf was looking for someone to update the classic "Fannie Farmer" cookbook.