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BETWEEN THE LINES WITH MARION CUNNINGHAM

Remedies for a takeout world

In the world according to Marion Cunningham, there is one golden rule: You must be home for dinner.

 

Cunningham, the authority behind the 1979 edition of "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," is on a one-woman crusade to restore the family dinner hour. To help things along, she's compiled "Lost Recipes: Meals to Share with Friends and Family" (Knopf, $22), a new volume of old favorites, from sticky buns to smothered chicken with mushrooms.

Cunningham says she's alarmed at the growing number of people who never learned how to cook for themselves and their loved ones. As a remedy, she presents uncomplicated recipes with the promise of restoring, if not world peace, then at least the ineffable pleasures of shirred eggs, salads with green goddess dressing, and Boston brown bread from scratch.

Sitting down and eating together "has a far deeper meaning than just nourishment," says the almost-82-year-old cook and writer, who lives in Walnut Creek, Calif. "This seems like a long unrealistic hope, but I do truly believe that the most profound experience if someone is cooking in a home is when everyone sits and shares the food that is fixed. . . . It has to do with knowing who you are and where you're from."

Q. What do you mean when you say that home cooking helps us know who we are? Why can't ready-made meals bought at the store do this?

A. It doesn't have an identity. The food that is cooked in a home -- whether the cook is a poor one or a great one or an ordinary one -- that is where the food is made. That memory is a real identity to those who share that home.

During the war, my husband's mother was not a good cook, but he loved talking about how bad the food was. . . . It's sharing something of your very personal life. There's no doubt in my mind that we come to know one another seated at a table looking across at one another. It is the best glue that you can get in a family. I think that loss has taken a toll as women have needed to work and some people have never seen people cooking.

Q. Really? Some people have never seen people cooking? That's scary.

A.It is sort of scary. In other words, where did [the food we eat] originate? And it is true. I know, because I taught children's classes a few years back. They were varying ages, from 5 to 7 years old, and really none of them knew anything [about food sources]. We live city lives. When I had a potato, the children didn't know what it was. One boy said it was a rock. It was very revealing to me.

Q. It's because women have gone into the workforce?

A.I can't blame women -- although men are cooking some, too. If they never saw anyone cook in a kitchen, it's not surprising how many . . . haven't a clue. . . . I took a whole group of adults [in a class], who had never seen anyone cook, down to a Safeway store. They knew nothing about shopping and they didn't like the idea of having to shop and I began to understand why. . . .

Lots of times we don't write recipes so it's clear. . . . It's a carryover from the era in which everybody did cook. We just assume people know.

Q.You mention in the introduction that recipe sharing is also a lost habit.

A.It's a lost tradition. People don't talk about home cooking anymore, and they don't swap recipes. Most of us loved doing that. . . . The problem is that time is short. . . . There aren't those lazy days when you can exchange things and talk to neighbors. I think it matters. . . . We have lost a connection with our fellow man.

Q.Is it that today when people talk about cooking, it's for a special occasion rather than about how to throw biscuit ingredients into a bowl for a weeknight dinner?

A.Where I swim every day there are a lot of young women. I overhear them talk about food and so much of it is those heat-and-eat dishes.

Q.There are a lot of pudding recipes in this book. Many people would consider pudding to be a prime comfort food, but it's virtually disappeared from our tables, either as a side dish like corn pudding or a dessert. Is it because it's time consuming?

A.Probably it's that simple. For a lot of women, you don't have a lot of confidence about making food. You can cut [pudding] out, but you have to have a big bowl of soup. It's extra. Could it disappear from our palate? I don't remember the last time I had a pudding served to me.

Q.Can you explain the appeal of aspic?

A.If you can mix up something like tomato juice and add things like chives to it and add some Knox gelatin. The key is not to trust a recipe and to taste things.

Q.But why eat it?

A.It's usually done at a luncheon and now we don't do luncheons. It's nice. It's refreshing. It's cooling. In summertime, it's ideal.

Q.You are a champion of iceberg lettuce.

A.Unapologetically. There's nothing like it. I think it's ideal. It's crunchy. It's crisp. It's inexpensive. . . . I don't think we have to eke out nourishment from every piece of food. I've been nourished to the nth degree. That doesn't concern me. What I love about iceberg is the texture and the chill.

Q.What are you making for dinner tonight?

A.Tonight I have prime rib steak and my daughter has been with me because she's ill. And baked potatoes and a salad with iceberg. If you have somebody to cook for, you can really throw yourself into it.

Robin Dougherty, a writer and critic, lives in Washington, D.C. Her column appears every other week. She can be reached at inkrd@aol.com.

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