“Who’s Marion Cunningham? Isn’t she the mom from ‘Happy Days’?”
That’s what the guy next to us asked the server upon seeing the menu at last night’s Sunday Supper at Lucques. As Cunningham (who passed away last week) said herself in this 2001 article by Kim Severson, “I’m not trying to be modest, but it doesn’t feel like I have any celebrity. Really, I’m not saying this just to say it, but it doesn’t.” So I suppose it was appropriate that those who were at Lucques last night to celebrate Marion Cunningham were really there to celebrate her and those who weren’t were simply happy beneficiaries of a meal cooked in her honor by one of the country’s best chefs, Suzanne Goin.
As that wonderful Severson article reveals, Cunningham was not an elitist about food. She enjoyed shopping at traditional supermarkets as much as farmer’s markets (something I relate to) and had a fondness for iceberg lettuce that her friend, Alice Waters, tried to help her overcome. Waters wasn’t successful.
This meal, in fact, was based on a meal that Waters once cooked for Cunningham’s birthday at Chez Panisse. It started with a deceptively simple plate of marinated beets, a dungeness crab toast, and–the real star–a potato crusted fried oyster.
That fried oyster was really a revelation. The potato somehow extended the briny flavor of the oyster so what you got was a deep-fried marriage of land and sea that was like good drama: both surprising and inevitable.
The salad course was a winking nod to the Waters/Cunningham lettuce story: little gem lettuce with green goddess dressing, watermelon radish and early girl tomatoes.
Little Gem was exactly the right lettuce to use for this salad because it has that delightful crunch that iceberg has (and that Cunningham loved) but a flavor closer to the lettuces Waters prefers. And that green goddess dressing was truly sublime; the recipe’s in the Sunday Suppers cookbook and I feel like slapping myself for not making it more often. It’s a knockout.
And speaking of knockouts, the entree at this tribute dinner–An Ode to Marion’s Chicken Pot Pie with Thyme, Leeks and Mushrooms–totally floored me.
I’d never really had a chicken pot pie. This one will ruin me for all others. The crust was flaky beyond belief and the filling, smoking hot, was both deeply comforting (like a thickened chicken soup) and fascinatingly eclectic, with fava beans and wild-looking mushrooms.
The dessert, hazelnut cake with butterscotch ice cream and chocolate sauce, capped the meal perfectly with its layers of humble decadence:
What a spectacular tribute this dinner was to Marion Cunningham. So effective, in fact, that those who didn’t know who she was before they sat down wouldn’t soon forget her after eating this meal. Bravo to Chef Goin for honoring Cunningham’s legacy in such a lovely, loving way.