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Still Bringing Joy After 80 Years
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, thejoykitchen.com.
"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."