Irma von Starkloff Rombauer (1877–1962), a Missouri homemaker who developed The Joy of Cooking at the age of 54, is one of the most influential figures in American home cooking in the twentieth century. The Joy of Cooking has been continuously in print since 1936.
A Privileged Upbringing
The youngest child of a well-off St. Louis doctor, Max von Starkloff and his second wife Emma Kuhlmann, Rombauer was born October 30, 1877. The Starkloff family lived in Carondelet, a former suburb of St. Louis, which had been annexed by the city less than a decade before Rombauer's birth. During her early childhood, Rombauer and her elder sister, Elsa, were educated at home and later at local schools. When Rombauer was twelve, her father took a government posting in Bremen, Germany, where the family remained for five years. During these years, she continued her somewhat sporadic formal education, being taught by governesses or at girls' schools in Bremen or, briefly, Lausanne. In late summer 1894, the von Starkloffs returned to Missouri, settling in fashionable South St. Louis.
Upon the family's return, Rombauer began taking art courses at local Washington University—although she did not formally pursue a degree—and spent time visiting family in Indianapolis. In 1897, the still-Irma von Starkloff met young lawyer Edgar Rombauer; the two became engaged in early 1899 and married in a civil ceremony on October 14 of that year. Rombauer's income was limited, and the young couple lived in a small rented apartment with reportedly no domestic help, a state which Anne Mendelson noted in Stand Facing the Stove was "outlandish indeed for a bride of [Rombauer's] social position," adding that this story may have been an exaggeration.
Short months after the Rombauers' marriage, the couple's first child, Roland, was born on July 27, 1900. However, the baby was not strong and died in March of the following year. Both father and mother were devastated by this loss, and the Rombauers left their apartment to move in with the von Starkloffs. In March 1902, Edgar Rombauer had a nervous breakdown; to help him recover, he and his wife traveled to a resort at Eureka Springs, Arkansas. By the end of April, he was sufficiently recovered to return to St. Louis, where the couple's second child and only daughter, Marion, was born on January 2, 1903. The growing family continued to live with the von Starkloffs until 1906, when Edgar Rombauer became the legal guardian of his fourteen-year-old nephew, Roderick, and the Rombauers took up residence in the home of their new charge's deceased family. (Roderick, who turned out to be a somewhat rebellious and unruly teenager, quickly found himself sent to military school.)
The Rombauer family grew in a more traditional way the following year, when Irma Rombauer gave birth to what would be the last Rombauer child, Edgar Roderick Rombauer Junior, on August 15, 1907. Rombauer was not a traditional mother figure, spending much of her time out of the house; after 1911, she was particularly involved with St. Louis' elite Wednesday Club. Edgar Rombauer was an avid outdoorsman, and the family maintained a vacation cottage in Michigan. Here, Rombauer would later claim, she learned the basics of cooking from her husband. As the Rombauer children progressed through school and their parents through their upper-middle-class lives, nothing portended that Irma Rombauer would, in middle age, write one of America's most enduring cookbooks.
Tragedy Spured The Joy of Cooking
By 1929, Irma Rombauer had become prominent in St. Louis' social circles, serving that year, for example, as president of the Women's Committee of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Board of Directors. However, her husband had continued to suffer nervous attacks every few years since the initial breakdown in 1902; in the fall of 1929, a particularly severe breakdown struck him. Mendelson comments that "despite the timing, it is doubtful that the Great Depression … was the clue to this collapse." Possibly contributing factors included a recent loss in a Board of Education election or a possible recurrence of a bladder cancer Edgar Rombauer had battled years previously. Whatever the cause, the Rombauers spent most of December 1929 and January 1930 in South Carolina in the hopes that the milder climate would ease Rombauer's recovery. When the couple returned to St. Louis at the end of January, Edgar Rombauer seemed improved and ready to return to normal life.
However, on February 3, 1930, while Irma Rombauer was out of the house shopping, Edgar Rombauer committed suicide by shooting himself through the mouth with a shotgun. The act was completely unexpected and the Rombauer family was shocked and devastated. To complicate matters, the Great Depression was taking its toll on Irma Rombauer; she realized quickly that she would need to find another source of income to replace the money her husband had earned. Rombauer moved to a smaller, cheaper apartment in the West End of St. Louis. Unable to fathom the idea of finding regular employment, she determined to write a cookbook to bring in some money.
An Amateur Wrote a Classic
No evidence of Rombauer having any experience or talent as a cook exists. Rather than using her own recipes exclusively, Rombauer spent months collecting recipes from acquaintances, testing them to decide whether or not they would suitable for inclusion in her burgeoning cookbook. Her daughter Marion, then living in New York City, assisted in the testing process and later, illustrated the manuscript. Rombauer did not have a publisher for the cook-book, instead used part of her $6,000 legacy from her husband's death to pay the Clayton Company to print 3,000 copies of The Joy of Cooking: a Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat. Indeed, to fans of the cookbook, much of its charm lies in Rombauer's chatty tone, with anecdotes woven into the recipes. Unlike traditional cookbooks, Rombauer's voice infuses The Joy of Cooking, as though she were sitting in the kitchen of each reader, telling them personally how to prepare a certain dish. Rombauer marketed the book herself, selling copies to friends; convincing shops in St. Louis, Michigan, and other areas to carry the cookbook; and generating publicity through contacts with newspapers.
The original release of The Joy of Cooking enjoyed modest success. In Little Acorn, Irma Rombauer's daughter Marion Rombauer Becker commented that "Mother's friends made sales lively, but not brisk enough to suit her." By 1935, an expanded version was set to be published by Bobbs-Merrill. Rombauer and her publisher had an acrimonious relationship from the start, often arguing over costs and royalties. However, when the cookbook was released nationally in 1936, it enjoyed moderate success and seemed to be on its way to becoming a standard, accepted cookbook like the popular Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. The 1936 edition introduced what was then a revolutionary format for the recipes themselves; instead of listing the ingredients directly after the recipe's title and then providing instructions for the creation of the dish, The Joy of Cooking presented the directions chronologically, setting the required ingredients in bold type.
Rombauer Chose an Heir
By the mid-1940s, when The Joy of Cooking truly became an unmitigated success, Irma Rombauer was approaching her 70th birthday. Her health was starting to fade, perhaps spurred by her stressful working relationship with her publisher and some family disputes. Rombauer's next cookbook, A Cookbook for Girls and Boys, was completed with the assistance of her daughter Marion Rombauer Becker, by then living in Cincinnati, Ohio. Although Rombauer Becker had provided mostly artistic contributions to previous editions, the 1951 revision of The Joy of Cooking recognized her as a genuine co-author. She, rather than her mother, took up much of the debate with Bobbs-Merrill over matters related to the publication of the cookbook, only truly taking over as head of the content later.
With the 1951 edition safely handled, Irma Rombauer, indulging a life-long love of travel, set off to Europe with her grandson for an extended tour and later visited Mexico City. However, in 1955, she suffered a mild stroke; although this stroke did not impair her mental process, it did mark the beginning of a continuing series of strokes that struck Rombauer down over the next few years. These strokes gradually robbed Rombauer of her strength, speech, and ability to perform even simple tasks such as writing. She found herself in a situation she had feared: being unable to control her body, while maintaining mental awareness and her sense of self. Marion Rombauer Becker was forced to take control of The Joy of Cooking due to her mother's deteriorating health.
Rombauer's health continued to falter and, in 1962, at last failed. Her first stroke had paralyzed the left side of her body; now, her left leg had become infected with gangrene. To complicate the problem, Rombauer had an irregular heartbeat and had recently experienced a bout of seizures triggered by the failure of some brain functions. Her left leg was amputated but did not properly heal. Rombauer was transferred to a nursing home due to the infection from her leg and died there after a steady deterioration on October 17, 1962.
The Later History of The Joy of Cooking
After her mother's death, Marion Rombauer Becker became responsible for the updates and revisions to The Joy of Cooking until the mid-1970s. The cookbook then remained essentially unchanged for nearly two decades, with her fifth edition acting as the standard text. In 1997, Ethan Becker, Marion Rombauer Becker's son and Irma Rombauer's grandson, headed up a major revision, incorporating more modern recipes and ingredients. The following year, Ethan Becker wrote an introduction for Simon and Schuster's reprint of an exact reproduction of the original 1931 self-published edition with Marion Rombauer Becker's illustrations. The Joy of Cooking today remains one of the most respected cookbooks in America, considered by many to be one of the most essential cooking texts available.
Becker, Marion Rombauer, Little Acorn: Joy of Cooking: the First Fifty Years, 1931–1981, Bobbs-Merrill, 1966, 1981.
Mendelson, Anne, Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women who Gave America The Joy of Cooking, Henry Holt, 1996.
"History of Carondelet," http://stlouis.missouri.org/carondelet/history/incorporation6.html (December 27, 2005).
"American National Biography Online: Irma Rombauer," http://www.anb.org (December 27, 2005).