Ben Margot/Ap
Stephen M. Silverman
July 12, 2012 12:00 PM

Learning to Cook author Marion Cunningham, widely considered the mother of American cooking, died on Wednesday in Walnut Creek, Calif., after suffering a series of medical conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease and respiratory problems, The New York Times reports. She was 90.

Among her many gifts to the family dining table was the simple philosophy that parents and children should share evening mealtimes together, so kids might learn table manners and how to engage in dinner conversation. She was also a champion of simple American fare – roast chicken, salad with iceberg lettuce and strawberry shortcake. (The Times shares her coffeecake recipe along with its obituary.)

“Marion was a traditionalist, but an enlightened traditionalist,” Alice Waters, founder of the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, told the Los Angeles Times. “She could appreciate every conceivable food, the way she could connect with every conceivable person.”

“Food is more than fodder,” the former Marion Enwright, a Southern California native, wrote in the preface to The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, the standard kitchen text (since 1896) that she was hired to revise in the late 1970s. “It is an act of giving and receiving because the experience at table is a communal sharing.”

A remarkable woman by all accounts, as a young housewife married to a lawyer Cunningham simply couldn’t afford frozen convenience foods. As she told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, when the family lived in Laguna Beach, Calif., old friends from school started arriving in droves. To feed the throng, said Cunningham, “I made casseroles, stews, soups and big hearty salads with thick creamy dressings. All good to eat and cheap to make.”

In her 30s she struggled with alcoholism and agoraphobia – but overcame them both, and in the early ’70s she took a cooking class from celebrated chef James Beard. It was her first far-ranging trip, and a friendship was born. So was a career: Beard recommended Cunningham to publisher Alfred A. Knopf for the update of the Fannie Farmer book.

Her other books included The Breakfast Book, Cooking with Children and Lost Recipes, and she had her own Food Network show, Cunningham & Company.

Among her many honors were the Grand Dame award from Les Dames d’Escoffier in 1993, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the James Beard Foundation in 2003.

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