The Joy of Cooking

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The Joy of Cooking

In 1931, with the United States deep in an economic depression, German American housewife Irma Rombauer (1877–1962) faced a bleak future. Her husband had committed suicide, leaving her little money to support a family. But Rombauer came up with a clever moneymaking scheme—she would gather recipes from her family and friends and publish a cookbook. That cookbook, called The Joy of Cooking, went on to become one of the best-known cookbooks in American kitchens.

Rombauer was not known for her cooking skills, and those who knew her were unsure about the project. She imagined a cookbook designed for inexperienced cooks like herself, middle-class women who had been raised in homes that employed cooks to prepare food for the family. With the financial hardships of the Great Depression (1929–41; see entry under 1930s—The Way We Lived in volume 2), few families could afford servants any longer, and housewives needed to learn how to cook. Rombauer hoped to publish an encyclopedia of cookery that would explain every step of cooking in simple, conversational terms, from preparing fresh game (like roast squirrel and stewed porcupine) to setting the table.

In 1931, Rombauer used what little money her husband had left her to publish The Joy of Cooking: A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat. The first printing sold quickly. By 1935, publisher Bobbs-Merrill bought the rights to Rombauer's book. In 1948, Rombauer's daughter, Marion Rom-bauer Becker (1903–1976), joined her mother to revise the cookbook. She remained as editor until her death when her son, Ethan Becker (1945–), continued the family tradition as editor.

Over the years, The Joy of Cooking has sold over fifteen million copies. The book has been revised six times to update the recipes (the squirrel and porcupine were removed). There are many special editions, such as The Joy of Cooking: All About Pasta and Noodles, published in 2000. Although The Joy of Cooking is not the best-selling U.S. cookbook (The Betty Crocker Cookbook has sold over sixty million copies; see Betty Crocker entry under 1920s—Commerce in volume 2), it is without a doubt the "bible" of American cooking, without which no kitchen is complete.

Rombauer's original vision is responsible for her book's place in American culture. Writing in a warm, conversational tone, from one woman to another, Rombauer and Becker managed both to demystify and define the arts of cooking and entertaining for generations of women.

—Tina Gianoulis

For More Information

Gordon, John Steele. "Out of the Frying Pan: When Irma Rombauer Finally Found a Publisher for Her Famous Cookbook, Her Troubles Began in Earnest." American Heritage (Vol. 49, no. 2, April 1998): pp. 20–23.

Gray, Paul. "Ode to Joy: A Classic Cookbook Gets a Total Facelift; Purists Worry; Some Contributors Simmer; Will the Pot Boil Over?" Time (November 10, 1997): pp. 92–96.

"It's a Whole New Joy: The Joy of Cooking." (accessed February 8, 2002).

Mendelson, Anne. Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Woman Who Gave America the Joy of Cooking. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.

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The Joy of Cooking

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