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Still Bringing Joy After 80 Years

meg's picture

This article by Bill Daley appeared in the Chicago Tribune's Food and Dining section today. We are proud to be the custodians to Irma's lasting legacy.

Irma S. Rombauer was in a tight spot as the Great Depression deepened across the nation. Her husband had just killed himself, her children were grown and heading out of the nest. A grim future loomed. The St. Louis housewife fought back the only way she knew how: gathering and self-publishing in 1931 a collection of favorite recipes. She called it "The Joy of Cooking."

Rombauer's book has grown through multiple editions and generations of her family into a kitchen must-have. Known now as "Joy of Cooking" ("The" was dropped decades ago), it is still the book to turn to whether you want to bake a chess pie, braise a bear or whip up a mai tai.

From an initial run of 3,000 copies that Rombauer sold herself, an estimated 18 million books have since been sold. The original 450 or so recipes has grown to about 4,500, including variations. In 2012, "Joy" was included in a list of 88 books that shaped America, according to the Library of Congress.

Yet "Joy" remains, at heart, a testament to what a spirited amateur with empathy for fellow cooks can do when the inevitable question is posed: "Is there anything to eat?"

"She was a mighty woman for a little tiny woman," said food historian Barbara Haber, the Winchester, Mass.-based author of "From Hardtack to Homefries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals." "I love her voice, her determination, her willingness to move with the times. Irma was a very modern woman."

Rombauer could write a cookbook with wit, heart, style. But what surprised her family initially was that she could work just as ably in the kitchen.

"She was known as a really great hostess, but no one thought of her as a great cook," said her grandson, Ethan Becker. "She said, 'Look, I know who in the family is a great cook. I know where the great recipes are.' She was a gutsy lady."

Becker said the Depression had left countless Americans alone in their kitchens without servants or other help. They regarded cooking as a "horrible chore." His grandmother, however, thought it could be fun — a joy.

"She worked very hard trying to address a lot of people with a lot of preferences," said Anne Mendelson, author of "Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America the Joy of Cooking." "It was not all can-opener stuff, but she wasn't ashamed of the can opener. She wasn't trying to be Cordon Bleu."

Heartened by her initial effort, Rombauer sought a publisher as she kept adding to her book. She signed with Bobbs-Merrill Co., which released an expanded version of "Joy" in 1936. But in doing so she signed over the rights to that edition and her 1931 original, sparking a feud over royalties and copyrights that went on for decades. (These days, there's a 50-50 split on copyright ownership between the current publisher, Scribner, and The Joy of Cooking Trust, representing her family.)

"Joy" became a best-seller during World War II when Rombauer released a revision in 1943 with recipes and tips to deal with shortages and rationing. By the 1950s, Rombauer was being helped by her daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, who had provided the cover art and illustrations for the 1931 edition. Becker now shared authorship credit and increasingly took over the book as her mother began to suffer from a series of strokes. (Rombauer died in 1962 at 84; Becker died in 1976, shortly after publication of the 1975 edition — the most popular.)

Today, "Joy" is going strong with a fourth generation, Rombauer's great-grandson, who is poised to lead the next revision. What would Rombauer make of all this?

"I think she would be astonished by the content," Mendelson said. "I think she would be proud it is still going and a family affair."

What's next for 'Joy'?

"Joy of Cooking" is very much a family affair for the descendants of Irma S. Rombauer. And it's clear that "Joy" fans like it that way.

The 1997 edition listed as co-author Ethan Becker, son of Rombauer's daughter, Marion. But critics said there was precious little sign of him, his mother or his grandmother in this dramatically revamped book, where food professionals were enlisted to produce articles and recipes. The 2006 edition rectified the situation. Ethan Becker and his wife, Susan, put out a 75th anniversary edition that, in the words of Ethan Becker's letter to readers, put "the joy back in Joy."

Ethan Becker's son, John, and John's wife, Megan Scott, are planning the 2016 edition. The two already head up the book's website,

"John and I are committed to retaining the spirit and tone of the book — friendly, helpful, down-to-earth," Scott wrote in an email. "More than anything, we want to hone the book — tweak recipes that are cumbersome, add important recipes that aren't there yet, … and work on beefing up specific sections of the book."


Margaret Curran's picture

I love this book but have a few suggestions. Your recipe for prime rib beef roast uses a quantity whi g is much too large for a family dinner and many recipes,, including roast turkey, just give the.temperature reached when the roast is done. It would be helpful to have a time estimate so we can tell when to put the meat int the oven,
Finally,I was sorry to see the tuna and potato chip loaf is missing. Although a little bland as written. When perked up by the addition of some very finely chopped onion, garlic and celery. a dash of Worcestershire sauce along with a bit of rosemary and summer savory (a much under utilized herb), it is a very tasty dish, especially when topped with a few more crushed potato.chips and a little grated cheese.
By the way, this is still my favourite cookbook and I have many.

meg's picture

Thank you very much for your feedback... believe it or not, we do not receive as much as we would like. About the standing rib roast: you are absolutely right! WAYYY too much for a normal family dinner. Though you can occasionally find a 3-rib roast in a butcher case, the standing roast is usually an expensive, special-order type deal, which is why we decided to go with the full, 7-rib quantity. If you want to cook less meat, the basic Roast Beef recipe on page 470 might be worth checking out (or you could just use the same recipe with a smaller roast). That recipe also has a per-pound cooking time guideline so you know when to put the thing in the oven. Our Roast Turkey recipe has a similar cooking time rule, as the size and weight can vary so much. One of the reasons why we are more inclined to give an ideal temperature instead of time? Temperature never deceives or fails you! It's the best way to tell when large cuts are done, and when we give times, people (myself included!) will often go by that alone. Especially with turkey (which will turn dry if you look at it wrong) and beef roasts (which people are very picky about), the instant-read thermometer is a godsend. As a result, we always give the temperature in a recipe and will occasionally move the cooking-time info to the "About" section about turkey, chicken, etc. On to the Tuna-Potato Chip Loaf: John and I recently "discovered" this one while researching older JOY recipes and it sounds delicious. We were big fans of the Fish Loaf (page 106), much to our surprise, and the potato chips seem like they would add a nice bit of texture. Have you tried the Fish Loaf? Like you said, the seasonings could be kicked up a notch, but most of our recipes are designed for tweaking to taste. Needless to say, we are very happy that JOY still gets "favourite" status, despite these oversights. P.S.- summer savory is awesome! Got some homegrown, lightly dehydrated leaves from a friend and have been rediscovering how to use it recently. Please keep in touch if you have any other suggestions or comments!

Laurel's picture

I was given a copy of the Joy of Cooking as a wedding gift back in 2002. I decided to make jam and my mom told me she uses the joy of cooking recipes. I pulled out my copy and there isn't a chapter on preserves or canning at all! Was this chapter purposely taken out of the newer editions? Or a misprint? I had to go borrow my mom's older version.

meg's picture

Hi Laurel. I'm sad to say that the 1997 edition of the Joy of Cooking does not have a Jams and Jellies chapter. Nor does it have a Pickles and Relishes chapter, a Frozen Desserts chapter, or a Cocktails and Party Drinks chapter. That edition was spearheaded by an ambitious cookbook editor who used a slash and burn method of editing on JOY, and in the intervening years the family has taken great pains to regain control of the book and its contents. The most recent edition, published in 2006, brought back all the "missing" chapters that the 1997 edition lacked. This year we were able to take the 1997 edition out of print, as we feel it is not representative of the JOY brand and is a disservice to our readers. I'm truly very sorry that you had to stumble upon this problem. As a longtime canning enthusiast, I understand your frustration. Please let us know if we can answer any more questions or help in some way.

Vic's picture

Any chance someone can share the standing rib roast recipe from an earlier version? Unfortunately I did not discover the recipe had changed until after I discarded the old and worn out version... :-(

john's picture

Do you remember the year your older edition was published? I'll be happy to send you an image.

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Joy of Cooking App for iPad and iPhone

After three years of collaborative effort with our friends at Culinate and Scribner, it is our pleasure to introduce the Joy of Cooking for iPad and iPhone! Please check out this full-featured, digital version of the 2006 edition. In addition to the recipes and indispensable reference information our readers know and love, the app has many features that are brand new to JOY:

  • Built-in recipe timers (you can have multiple timers going simultaneously)
  • Search for and filter recipes by key word, ingredient, cuisine, season, technique, diet, and more
  • Create shopping lists from within the app
  • Convert any recipe to metric automatically
  • Give voice commands or have recipe steps spoken to you
  • Create menus in the app
  • Share recipes from within the app
  • Color photography

Truly a JOY for the 21st century! Download by directing your browser to Don't forget to review the app!

Wash and slice in half, reserving the juice:
     2 pounds yellow or orange cherry or plum tomatoes
If using plum tomatoes, quarter them. Either way, combine in a bowl...