Joy of Cooking

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Joy of Cooking

An eight-hundred page cookbook that begins with a quote from Goethe's Faust seems an unlikely candidate for a spot on a list of the best-selling books of the century, but Irma S. Rombauer's Joy of Cooking (first edition 1931), sold 14 million copies before 1997—a record that speaks for itself in terms of the enormous influence it has wielded in the development of social culture. In 1977 a revised edition was issued by its new publisher, Simon & Schuster, and despite the vast changes in the eating habits of American households over the decades, the detailed tome again landed on the best-seller lists. By the end of the twentieth century, it was the top-selling all-purpose cookbook in publishing history, deemed the bible of American culinary customs, from cocktails to custards.

Part of Joy of Cooking's success lies in the way it presents the art of food preparation in simple, forthright terminology. Rombauer was a widowed St. Louis socialite of patrician German birth when she began assembling her wealth of recipes into book form in 1930, partly at the request of her two grown children. Married to a lawyer in 1899, she had had little experience in the kitchen as a young wife, and like other affluent women of the era, she relied on domestic staff to help plan and cook meals for family dinners and social events. Her husband was an avid outdoor man, however, and had instructed her in some of the basics of the camp stove. Over the next few decades Rombauer matured into an accomplished chef and renowned hostess. One of her aims in writing the book was to persuade American women that cooking was not a daily, labor-intensive, time-consuming chore, but rather a delight, indeed, a "joy." The book's title has something of an ironic tinge, because Rombauer's husband had suffered from depression for much of his adult life, and committed suicide in the family home in St. Louis a few months after the stock market crash of 1929. He left his wife and two children an estate of just 6000 dollars, and Rombauer used half of that sum to put her first edition into print.

The recipes that Irma Rombauer assembled for the first Joy of Cooking: A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat (1931) provided new cooks with the basics. Illustrated by her artistic-minded daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, the book sold 3,000 copies, literally out of Rombauer's St. Louis home. The stylized, art-deco cover depicted a gowned St. Martha of Bethany, the patron saint of cooks, slaying a dragon representing kitchen drudgery; inside were to be found old European recipes, such as braised heart slices in a sour sauce, adapted for use with American ingredients and tools. There were several meat dishes that reflected traditional peasant economics, whereby when an animal was slaughtered almost no inch of it went to waste—neither brains nor tongue, intestine or feet. On a lighter note, Rombauer told readers about her cook, Marguerite, and Marguerite's culinary prowess. Her chatty style extended to explaining the mechanics of food preparation: she assumed, for example, that novices in the kitchen did not know how to separate egg whites when a recipe called for it, and so guided them through it; likewise, she instructed them in other fundamentals such as flour sifting and deboning chicken.

In 1936, Indianapolis publisher Bobbs-Merrill brought out a Joy of Cooking edition rewritten and enlarged by the author. This version displayed Rombauer's unique set-up for each recipe that became the book's most famously identifying feature. Ingredients were listed in bold type so that a recipe could be quickly scanned to determine whether the ingredients were on hand in the pantry or refrigerator; more importantly, just what to do with those ingredients was detailed in a step-by-step sequence. This edition was an immediate success, due in part to the fact that, with the Great Depression, many well-todo households could no longer afford to keep servants, and numerous affluent American women had recently entered the kitchen full-time. They sorely needed Rombauer's instructions.

In 1939, Rombauer was far ahead of her time in recognizing the need for a cookbook designed to help working women prepare quick and easy meals. Streamlined Cooking was the result, and the relatively recent invention of the pressure cooker was a key element in many of the main-dish recipes. It was not as successful as her first volume, but when she merged the two into a 1943 edition of Joy of Cooking, she hit upon the perfect formula. Combining the easy recipes from Streamlined with the step-by-step instruction method of Joy produced an instant classic. Large numbers of women were working outside the home as a result of labor shortages created by World War II, and Rombauer's recipes took the countrywide wartime food rationing into consideration. When the third revision of the book appeared in 1951, household help had become a relic of a bygone era for all but the wealthiest of households. Census figures from between 1930 and 1960 tracked a decrease in the median age of men and women at the time of marriage, and the number of households, families, and married couples zoomed from 34.9 million in 1940 to 52.7 million in 1960. Though many women worked outside the home during this era, the image of the competent, attractive homemaker advanced by advertising and television programs was firmly entrenched by the postwar decade, and Joy of Cooking became the "how-to" guide to achieving domestic fulfillment for legions of American women.

By the 1960s Joy was a perennial best-seller, the standard bridal-shower gift, and a staple accessory of almost every middle-class household. "Its virtues were its compendiousness, its useful tables and explanations, its pragmatic, clear directions and a certain sprightly and encouraging tone," declared Diane Johnson in a 1997 assessment for the New York Review of Books. Johnson explained that later food critics of the 1970s and 1980s railed against some the book's more archaic elements and reliance on processed foods, especially after American culinary tastes grew more daring and gourmet cooking became all the rage. This trend was exemplified by Julia Child's's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, first published in 1961, which made the canned-soup recipes in the Joy of Cooking seem not only dated but somewhat pedestrian. By the 1962 edition, Marion Rombauer Becker had taken over the project, though her mother's name remained on the cover, and this and successive editions were revised, with certain recipes discarded, to reflect America's increasing culinary sophistication. The quote from Goethe remained, however: "That which thy fathers have bequeathed to thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it."

Irma Rombauer died in 1962, and her New York Times obituary noted that "the cookbook that brought her fame is considered one of the most lucid and accurate ever written. Mrs. Rombauer wrote charmingly and well about food." The paper also credited her with introducing elegant European recipes in accessible terminology "so they could be prepared with relative speed and ease by the average American housewife." A fifth edition of Joy of Cooking published in 1975 became the best-selling of all with an estimated 3.5 million copies sold in 20 years, and, despite editorial changes, still provided many delightful reminders of a bygone era. "Unless you choke your duck, pluck the down on its breast immediately afterward, and cook it within 24 hours, you cannot lay claim to having produced an authentic Rouen duck," begins the recipe for Duckling Rouennaise, a modified version of the genuine article. The recipe instructs readers to roast a five-pound bird on a spit or rotisserie, and then serve sliced in a chafing dish with a sauce prepared from its crushed liver, veal pate, onion, butter, and burgundy wine. Recipes for veal kidney, blood sausage, lamb head with a rosemary wine sauce, and pig's tails still abounded, and even a diagram for skinning a squirrel remained. Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America "The Joy of Cooking" (1966) is a chronicle of the book and its successive revisions by food writer Anne Mendelson, who praised the 1975 edition for its flaws as well as its virtues. "It records," wrote Mendelson, "the sheer improbability of twentieth-century American cooking from the Great Depression to the Ford administration, a lawless melange of blueprints for progress, nostalgic hankerings, gourmet cults, timesaving expedients, media-inspired fads, and unexpected rebellions."

Rombauer's grandson, Ethan Becker, revised Joy for a 1997 edition, the first in over two decades. Expanded to an exhaustive 1100-plus pages, the latest release vaulted to the best-seller lists immediately. As always, it had changed with the times: leaner, lowfat recipes prevailed, and a range of new ethnic dishes such as Vietnamese pho were included. In 1998 publisher Scribner brought out a facsimile of the very first edition, complete with the dragon-slaying, St. Martha cover.

—Carol Brennan

Further Reading:

Johnson, Diane. "American Pie." New York Review of Books. December 18, 1997, 20-23.

Levenstein, Harvey. Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America. New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.

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

"No More Simmered Porcupine." U.S. News & World Report. May 19, 1997, 10.

Rombauer, Irma S., and Marion Becker Rombauer. Joy of Cooking. New York, Scribner, 1975.