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Visiting Irma in St. Louis

meg's picture


Part of the thrill of working for the Joy of Cooking is the history behind it. In the process of learning the job and getting acquainted with the book, we've had to sift through all kinds of memorabilia. There was Marion's massive cookbook collection (card catalogued and indexed by subject), which includes Salvador Dali's cookbook and Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (which contains an entertaining section on how to handle servants!). Then, there were postcards, letters, and family heirlooms. The fact is, the Rombauers and Beckers are an incredibly productive bunch, and they left behind a detailed and extensive paper trail of the family's history.

However, the family is not in possession of all its artifacts. Over the years, the family has donated significant portions of its archives to museums and libraries, and while these were certainly honorable donations, the collections are not available for browsing in a convenient way, making our job of piecing together and understanding the family's history a bit more sketchy than it otherwise might be.

Of course, we've read Anne Mendelson's Stand Facing the Stove, which sheds light on a great many things for us, but even historians and writers of non-fiction look at their subjects through a personal lens. We have been thirsty for a firsthand look at origins for some time now.

Our current road trip was the first opportunity we've had to visit St. Louis, Irma's nearly lifelong home. One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center to see their collection of Irma's and Marion's correspondence with Irma's long-time assistant, Mary Whyte Hartrich, also known as "Mazie."

The collection is significant for many reasons. It gives us some idea of the earliest days of the cookbook, author-publisher relations, and Irma's unflappable personality. However, for me, a letter writer myself, the collection was a fascinating glimpse into a time when letters were the primary means of intimate communication.

Clearly, I'm no luddite. I write a blog, tweet, use Facebook, and my various electronic devices "talk" to each other. But there are some aspects of my life that I choose not to give over to machines. Writing letters is one of them. I don't necessarily write letters to every important person in my life, but to those who appreciate the extravagance of hand-written letters, I splurge and take extra time to communicate with them in this way.

Cooking is another area of my life that I have not relinquished to convenience. Even when it comes to the small things. We buy dried rice and beans, not pre-cooked or canned. We make our own stock. We can our own preserves. We have even branched out into growing some of our own food. This is not out of some attempt at preciousness or holier-than-thou aspirations. We simply have the crazy belief that homemade is better and home-grown is best. So far, all the efforts of modern agricultural science have failed to produce a tomato that tastes good in December. Even mid-summer grocery store tomatoes are a shadow of a home-grown, sun-ripened heirloom tomato. We don't see this so much a failure of science as a personal challenge, and the effort we put into this challenge is completely worth it.

We also, obviously, cook because it's our job. But we do so willingly and joyfully, and part of the reason is because of Irma and Marion and their fearlessness in the kitchen and in their lives.

Irma compiled the first Joy of Cooking after her husband committed suicide in 1930. These days, drastic career changes and choices are not all that unusual, but with a little extrapolation, you can imagine what courage it must have taken for Irma to self-publish a cookbook in 1931. Irma von Starkloff was a child of the St. Louis deutschtum, a tight-knit community of German émigrés. She came from the sort of social milieu where housemaids were commonplace and women of any standing did not cook.

When her husband committed suicide, Irma was left with no income. Of all the career choices Irma may have made, cookbook author is perhaps the most far-fetched. She was no seasoned cook. In fact, her decision to compile a cookbook was met with incredulity on several fronts. Irma was known as a very gracious hostess, but she was an unflappable socialite whose emphasis was on cooking with speed, rather than cooking elaborate meals. She was very fond of "modern" conveniences such as canned goods and the electric blender.

Irma, in short, was perhaps the very person who needed to write a cookbook during this era of change. Rather than the stuffy, over-complicated cookbooks written up to that point, the Joy of Cooking was an ebullient, charming kitchen companion. Without pretense, Irma taught young brides how to whip up delicious, healthful, and quick meals. She showed young adults, charged with cooking dinner for their younger siblings, how to handle the complex world of the kitchen. It was during this era that more and more women who had been housewives were entering the workforce. The time (and often money) available for cooking was short. Irma did not avoid this reality--she embraced it.

Many JOY devotees are of the opinion that when Marion took over the book, the quality of the JOY deteriorated. We disagree. Marion was responsible, not only for retaining nearly all of her mother's wit and wisdom in subsequent editions of the book, but she also introduced us to cooking with tofu and preparing squirrel. She also illustrated the earliest editions with her fabulous paper cuttings, and was the artistic director for the layout and appearance of the book. She was nothing if not intrepid in the kitchen and in her life.

This is part of the reason we write blogs about making cheese or saving tomato seeds. It is our belief, not only that the home cook need fear nothing in the kitchen, but that we are continuing the lively JOY tradition of slaying the dragon of drudgery by making even daunting tasks fun, or at least less terrifying. There's no reason you can't make apple strudel at home; no reason you should be intimidated by boeuf bourguignon; no reason, even, to puzzle over the occasional pheasant or frog's leg.

Our visit to St. Louis brought us closer to an understanding of Irma's and Marion's world. Reading their letters, their fears and hopes, their tireless obsession with JOY, gave us a deeper understanding of the tradition we are now taking part in. It brought us a little closer to the audacious and plucky women who are responsible for bringing joy to the kitchen.

Note: The photo is of Irma's star in St. Louis. The featured image in the film strip is the house where Irma grew up.


Jura Finn's picture

My guardian, Gladys V. Moore, was the editor of The Joy of Cooking for many years. I have some letters and galley proof notes that I would like to get into the proper hands. You may email me if this is of interest. Thank you.

meg's picture

If you'd like to speak with us about this please send us an email by going to the "Contact Us" page. Unfortunately, when you left your comment, no email address was provided by which we can reach you. We'd love to hear more about your collection.

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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!

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