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The History of the Joy of Cooking

 

The Great Depression tightened its grip on a shaken nation in 1931, but not on the resolve of one strong-willed St. Louis woman confronting another sort of wound. Desolated by her husband’s suicide in 1930, she forged her own new purpose in life. She spent more than a year assembling a collection of favorite recipes and sent it forth into the world, at her own expense, with a title that defied grief: The Joy of Cooking.

When Irma von Starkloff Rombauer (1877-1962) began her late-life career with the encouragement of her son, Edgar Jr., and her daughter, Marion, the major American cookbooks were mostly the work of what H. L. Mencken called “cooking-school marms” or “a vast and cocksure rabble of dietitians.” Irma, the daughter of a cultured and politically active immigrant German family, was something else entirely. A complete amateur with no official credentials, she nonetheless knew that neophyte cooks somehow learn faster in the company of a friend. This small, chic, witty, and immensely forceful woman appointed herself that friend.

For several years she sold copies of her book out of her apartment, while rethinking the whole business of recipe writing. Eventually she hit on a novel format with the ingredients lists worked into the directions, now known as the action method. With the help of her husband’s former secretary, Mary Whyte (later Mary Whyte Hartrich), she recast all her recipes in the new style and prepared an expanded edition published in 1936 by the Bobbs-Merrill Company of Indianapolis. It was a modest success.

These first JOY editions take us back to an America where chicken was expensive and veal cheap, most kitchen knives had to be scoured clean with lemon juice to keep from staining, “frosted” (frozen) vegetables were making a very slow entry into kitchens, home refrigerators didn’t outnumber literal “iceboxes” cooled by blocks of ice, and milk was not homogenized. Electric mixers were a novelty; most people beat egg whites or whipped cream with a rotary eggbeater or wire whisk. Pureeing was done without blenders or food processors, by forcing the ingredients through a sieve with a wooden pusher or spoon. Many people had never encountered zucchini, broccoli, acorn squash, soy sauce, or fresh ginger. Goat cheese, fennel, fettuccine, bagels, yogurt, macadamia nuts, mangoes, hoisin sauce, extra-virgin olive oil, and cilantro were esoteric items known only to a few. Cherry tomatoes, Cornish hens, and butter wrapped in quarter-pound sticks lay some distance in the future, as did aluminum foil, household plastic bags, paper towels, and plastic wrap.

The only ethnic cuisines that most Americans had any exposure to were German, Italian, Chinese, and, in some states, Mexican. The favorite ways of serving vegetables (aside from simply boiled and buttered) were creamed or made into timbales or soufflés. For a backyard cookout—few people said “barbecue”—you needed to build a brick or stone fireplace. Mainstream cooks and hostesses might have had a qualm or two about putting garlic in the salad, but not about serving steak, cream sauces, variety meats like sweetbreads and tongue, butter-and-lard piecrusts, cheese omelets, gelatin salads, or condensed soups. Irma Rombauer’s cooking wholeheartedly embraced all the important features of this landscape as well as her own family’s traditional St. Louis German cooking.

Then as now, American food resisted easy generalizations, but in 1936, accommodating many diverse gastronomic preferences in a single cookbook was less of a stretch than it is today. And it was no stretch at all for Irma. She equally enjoyed old-fashioned dishes cooked from scratch and up-to-the-minute shortcuts using processed ingredients—like canned soups and evaporated or condensed milk—that some cooks thought were modern miracles while others looked down on them as inferior substitutes for homemade or fresh originals. The human bond represented by cooking meant more to her than fixed yardsticks of elegance or authenticity, and from the beginning, users of JOY felt that they were being addressed as friends, not pupils. They sensed the presence of a real person who could always take time to inject something extracurricular into the proceedings, whether it was a mention of her favorite comic-strip characters or literary quotations like Mark Twain’s “Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whiskey is barely enough.”

The next JOY incarnation arrived in 1943, during the great national crisis of World War II. Irma wove together much of the 1936 edition with Streamlined Cooking, a short book of timesaving recipes that she had published in 1939, to produce an expanded edition that appealed to thebroadest audience yet. This revision paid attention to developments like pressure cookers and a growing herbs-and-seasonings vogue, introduced more culinary reference material and nutritional information, included a section of recipes that used unrationed substitutes for ingredients subject to wartime rationing (hence the first soybean recipes in JOY), and offered newly fashionable dishes like beef Stroganoff, vichyssoise, and guacamole. Just as important, Irma gave her own lively personality even freer rein, strengthening the sense of a friend speaking to friends as she patriotically held “our mighty weapon, the cooking spoon.” Her efforts made JOY into a nationwide bestseller—indeed, as letters of thanks reached her from servicemen in the Pacific theater and harassed cooks on the home front.

In 1946, that edition was reissued with slight rearrangements to delete the war-rationing recipes, and in the same year Irma published a work for children, A Cookbook for Girls and Boys. She was already thinking ahead toward a more thorough updating of JOY for which she would call upon the talents of her daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker (1903-1976).                  

Marion had contributed artwork, recipe testing, and moral support to the first privately printed JOY. When Irma asked her to participate in the revision, she was living in Cincinnati with her husband, John William Becker, and their two young sons, Mark and Ethan. Like Irma, she was proud to call herself an amateur cook. But her skills and interests were a complement to her mother’s, not a carbon copy. She held staunch beliefs about a range of issues extending far beyond the kitchen, from the nutritional importance of whole grains to the virtues of organic gardening and ecological awareness. Her years as the first professional director of the Cincinnati Modern Art Society honed her feeling for visual presentation as an aid to learning and steered her to the young artist Ginnie Hofmann, who was hired to supply a large number of unusually apt and informative line drawings for the new edition.

Irma, meanwhile, had made helpful contacts in the New York food world—especially her friend Cecily Brownstone of the Associated Press—that enabled her to keep abreast of new culinary fashions and kitchen resources. Mother and daughter together reshaped the book to embrace important postwar developments like the growing role of home freezers and other specialized appliances. New signs-of-the-times recipes included chicken cacciatore, bacon-wrapped prunes, plain brown rice, herring in sour cream sauce, homemade yogurt, and pizza (called Vegetable Shortcake). This JOY also provided bits of “desert island” information—e.g., how to pasteurize milk at home—that would prove a blessing to people in strange or isolated situations anywhere from city to wilderness.

Irma’s part in the work was cut short by a series of strokes beginning in 1955. Along with the demands of her mother’s illness, Marion was left to undertake the next revision with the aid of John, who contributed much editorial polish, wit, and culinary judgment. They produced not just a cookbook but an encyclopedic, though personable and entertaining, resource with strengthened desert-island elements and a new emphasis on background information. In this edition, Marion, who loved the sense of sharing pleasures with reader-friends as much as Irma, pointed to her family’s special favorites with the designation “Cockaigne”—the name of the Beckers’ beloved Cincinnati home, where she had created an eight-acre “wild garden” and model of ecological restoration.

This JOY would stand as one of the signal documents of the 1950s-1960s gourmet revolution, along with The James Beard Cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, The New York Times Cookbook, and Michael Field’s Cooking School. It would, however, have a broader influence than any of these. It was the book that amateurs and professionals alike turned to when they needed to grind their own peanut butter, tackle chitterlings or a whole octopus, set up a campfire for cooking, deal with a then-exotic fruit like cherimoya, purify drinking water, or substitute honey for sugar without ruining a recipe. And it rightly judged that American cooks were ready to embark on dishes like fish quenelles, cassoulet, stuffed grape leaves, bolognese sauce, baked kasha, and French-style pâtés.

Because of serious author-publisher disagreements, though, the new edition was not published in a form acceptable to Marion until 1963 (a garbled version had appeared in 1962, the year of Irma’s death). The next dozen years—a time of great fulfillment for Marion and John—saw JOY confirmed as the nation’s reigning kitchen bible, perhaps the most remarkable American cookbook of the twentieth century.

The next revision was prepared in the shadow of advancing illness. From 1972 on, Marion underwent debilitating treatments for incurablecancer, and in 1974 she lost John to a brain tumor. With the support of loyal helpers, including Ethan and his wife, Joan, as well as illustrator Ikki Matsumoto, she soldiered on through all obstacles. In 1975, she saw to completion an edition that embodied many of her own concerns (for instance, about the often troubling course of modern agribusiness) and convictions while providing an even greater range of recipes and reference material. This edition also saw such new entries as granola, hoppin’ or hopping John, bagna cauda, bulgur pilaf, pita-type flatbreads, and Chinese firepot. And it was the first to introduce kiwis and jicama, give practical directions for making tofu, discuss the uses of phyllo, and define kosher meat.

Intensely committed to continuity with JOY’s past as a family legacy and document, Marion took pains to leave in place much that had been in the book since 1931, from tomato pudding, potatoes O’Brien, onion soufflé, and cinnamon star cookies to choice Irmaisms like, “A bit of tomato skin was once as out of place at a dinner table as a bowie knife.” Her swan song struck an immediate chord with a huge audience ranging from suburban housewives to hippies on communes to the nation’s most admired food writers, and it would prove the most durable of all JOY editions to date.

 

Marion died at the end of 1976, leaving JOY in the hands of Ethan and Mark. After some years of joint revision efforts, Ethan took over sole responsibility. The next decades saw large publishing-industry shifts—including the demise of Bobbs-Merrill—that impeded further progress for a long while, until at last JOY came under the Scribner imprint of Simon & Schuster. In 1997, Scribner published an edition that, unlike earlier ones, included commissioned recipes and other material from dozens of professional food writers. The new edition also broke with the past in deemphasizing the first-person comments and whimsical asides that had been crucial to Irma and Marion’s approach. Yet they would have been the first to hail the valuable services that it performed: correcting past errors of fact in the light of more recent research; acknowledging the importance of appliances like food processors, microwave ovens (which Marion had had reservations about), and bread machines in contemporary American cooking; and—the most important change of all—taking account of exciting foods from other cultures, Cuban and Thai, Indian and Japanese. At the same time, the new version paid necessary attention to now indispensable ingredients or preparations (balsamic vinegar, Asian noodles, many chile pepper varieties, basmati rice, garam masala) and brought into the JOY fold such welcome recipe additions as grilled vegetables, gravlax, Mexican salsas, and Vietnamese phó.

In 1997, the year of that edition, Ethan married writer and artist Susan Cope. In the family tradition of looking toward future JOYs as soon as an updated version was completed, Ethan and Susan at once began working on a new revision for 2006.It would not have escaped Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker’s notice that, like some past JOYs, the seventy-fifth-anniversary edition finds the United States confronting “times that try men’s souls.” They would have been proud to send forth another version of their enduring work to all people of good will, with a title that still defies grief.

 

 

Anne Mendelson, author,

Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America The Joy of Cooking