Marion Cunningham, 82, a venerated figure in the food world, is shown at… (Photo by BEN MARGOT/AP/PHOTO…)
Whether you learned kitchen craft at the elbow of a family matriarch or have come to understand the significance of food through the printed word, chances are good that women you’ve never met have imprinted on your culinary DNA. They are mothers of invention, in effect, who have shown us the way by instruction and by example — their strengths passed on in legacy, in creativity and in recipes we adapt as our own.
Here are just a few of the many, some perhaps lesser known these days, who continue to inspire us.
FLORENCE LIN, who was born in the port city of Ningbo, near Shanghai, is America’s doyenne of Chinese cooking. Her books, lectures and classes long ago established her as one of our most prominent authorities on Chinese cuisine. Yet equal to her knowledge is her voice. She makes me appreciate the resourcefulness of Chinese cooks in creating a cuisine so innovative despite tremendous limitations.
Not familiar with her name? In 1968, Lin was one of the principal consultants for Time-Life’s groundbreaking “Cooking of China” volume in its “Foods of the World” series. During the 1960s, when Chinese cooking was at a peak of popularity, she co-founded the Chinese Cooking School at the China Institute in New York, where she taught thousands of students over the course of 25 years. Her classes were so famous even Julia Child attended. She also poured her knowledge into five other cookbooks (one of them, “Florence Lin’s Complete Book of Chinese Noodles, Dumplings and Breads,” is a sought-after collector’s item).
At age 92, Lin continues to disseminate her vast culinary knowledge. Most recently I was delighted to learn she had spent the day teaching her granddaughter to cook a few of her favorite classic Chinese dishes.
— Grace Young, whose most recent book is “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge”
MARION CUNNINGHAM, the woman with the bright-blue eyes and silver ponytail, could be a gentle scold: “Everyone’s always saying they’re so busy,” she would say. “I’d like to know one thing: What is everyone doing?”
Before I started making restaurant reservations for a living, I used to cook. A lot. During my first tour of duty at The Washington Post, the Food section published Wednesdays and Sundays. One of my jobs was to play Joe Reader and test the bulk of the recipes.
Looking back now, I’m struck by the ones that made the most-lasting impressions. They were grounded in common sense and American tradition, courtesy of Cunningham, who didn’t transition from full-time housewife to cooking teacher until she was almost 50. She went on, of course, to famously revise “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” (1996) for a new generation of readers and to become an advocate for simple home cooking. She kept her California telephone number listed so anyone with a cooking question could call.
From the pages of her books, Cunningham taught this greenhorn many lessons.
A recipe for graham crackers appears in “The Fannie Farmer Baking Book” and involves fewer than 10 ingredients. Homemade graham crackers are craggier than factory versions, but they are infinitely fresher-tasting and nuanced.
Don’t be too busy to bake a batch; the graham cracker recipe appears in our online database. Revelations rarely come easier.
— Tom Sietsema
MAIDA HEATTER has positioned a two-foot-tall Dutch cookie mold of a cat beside the front door of her Miami Beach home. Virtually unchanged since 1956, her kitchen has been the scene of baking, exhaustive recipe testing and writing for her 10 books about baking.
Now 97, Heatter credits her mother, Sadie, as a source of culinary inspiration. Her father, Gabriel, was a famous radio commentator of the 1940s. They loved to entertain, beginning Heatter’s life of meeting and mingling with the famous.
She was discovered by Craig Claiborne after she sent out a news release that her husband’s restaurant was serving elephant-meat omelets in honor of the 1968 Miami Republican National Convention. The New York food journalist visited her at home and was treated to a dizzying array of Heatter’s favorite cakes and desserts.
Her first book contract soon followed. “Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts” was published by Knopf in 1974. Her style has been characterized by a delightful mix of down-home favorites and classic European cakes and pastries, many of them new to American readers. Her clear, detailed directions have made more than one critic observe that her recipes make readers feel that she’s standing beside them.
Upon introduction to Heatter, the wife of Massachusetts congressman Tip O’Neill’s first words were “Palm Beach Brownies!” Queen Mother’s Cake, Skinny Peanut Wafers, Corn Melba and Bull’s Eye Cheesecake are just a few of Heatter’s showstoppers, never to be forgotten.
— Nick Malgieri, pastry chef-instructor and cookbook author