Irma Rombauer
The Joy of Cooking

Molly Finn

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 101 (March 2000): 44-46.

I asked my daughter, an accomplished cook and master baker, if she ever uses The Joy of Cooking. She looked at me as if I were crazy. "Of course! I use it all the time." "What for?" Pause. "If I need to look up a roasting time, if I want to find a certain cupcake. . . ." "Why do you like it?" No pause. "It works. It’s easy to use and there’s a nice helpful attitude. It’s American. It’s old–fashioned." That just about says it all. Everyone I’ve asked, in my generation and in hers, has given essentially the same answer.

The Joy of Cooking is an American institution. It was the only cookbook chosen by the New York Public Library during its centennial celebration in 1995 as one of the 150 most influential books of the century. Since it was first published in 1931 it has provided encouragement, information, and remedies for kitchen emergencies to countless uncertain brides, college students, experienced cooks, innocents, and snobs. With its excellent index and well–tested recipes, it has been the reference book of choice for those interested in traditional American food.

The best thing about The Joy of Cooking, however, is the voice of its author, Irma Rombauer. She engages in a constant dialogue with her readers, telling stories about herself and her family, sprinkling the text with genuine witticisms and excruciatingly corny puns, and making sure everybody knows that cooking is not an occult science or esoteric art, but part of the everyday work of the vast majority of women (and a few men) that can be turned into fun with her help.

Irma is not perfect. True to her era and the society in which she lived as a highly privileged matron accustomed to having a household staff at her disposal, she is unembarrassed about quoting, in dialect, the quaint sayings of "colored" acquaintances or employees. And the downside of being an American institution is the positively hideous food to be found in Joy. How’s this for a tomato sauce in which to serve hard–boiled eggs: "1 can of tomato soup, undiluted, to which 1 tablespoon of butter has been added." Or this, identified by Irma as "a winner in the race for time":

1 can tuna (7 oz)
Use the fish can to measure an equal amount of condensed cream soup
2 tablespoons milk
Season, heat, and serve

Or this, to be found in all versions of the book, including 1997: Golden Glow Salad, a mixture of canned pineapple, shredded carrots, and lemon jello. "Serve with mayonnaise."

But Irma always redeems her faults with her intelligence and humor. After describing how to eat steamed clams, she says, "This is a bathtub dish."

About soybeans: "They really need an uplift, being on the dull side but, like dull people, respond readily to the right contacts."

As a note preceding forty–nine recipes for "variety meats": "The following is a hush–hush section, just between us girls."

"The chicken is a world citizen to be found everywhere along with Coca–Cola, the Singer sewing machine, the Christian Science Monitor, and Hollywood movies."

"When it comes to cooking vegetables, many cooks seem to suffer from arrested development."

"Henrietta’s recipes made mouth–watering reading. That, as Archie of Duffy’s Tavern would say, is the ‘ipso,’ but the ‘facto’ is that they are almost impossible to follow."

About using a modernized version of a recipe: "Even a German Cherry Cake rule must bow to the Zeitgeist."

The Joy of Cooking has always been a family enterprise, and through all the revisions of the work as it changed and expanded from 1931 through 1975 it has been recognizable as essentially the same book. In 1951, for the third revision, Irma’s daughter Marion Becker joined her mother as coauthor, and after Irma’s death in 1962 Marion continued as author through the book’s fifth revision, published in 1975 shortly after Marion’s death. That edition sold about 100,000 copies per year between 1975 and 1997, by which time fourteen million copies of Joy had been sold.

As one might expect, Irma’s voice was the only one heard through the first two revisions and it continued to dominate even in the third, though Marion as coauthor injected her own (sometimes questionable) theories concerning healthful cooking and eating. By the time the fifth revision was published in l975, the book had come more and more to resemble an encyclopedia, giving "definitive" information on a very wide range of subjects and, in the end, losing most of what made it interesting.

In 1997 the "All–New–All–Purpose" super–duper large–format four–pound revision was published. Thinking that they can find everything they want (or ought) to know about food and cooking in one place, Americans have bought about 1.5 million copies in the two years plus since this edition was published. It’s not appropriate to call this Joy a revision. Except for the title and a few recipes, this book, put together by a team of "experts" and purporting to offer a complete guide to worldwide foods and cooking, has little connection to the Joy of Cooking thousands of Americans know and love.

Here’s a sample of the evolution of the introductory material about potatoes: 1951: "In recent years the mania for girth control has played havoc with the fair name of the potato—bringing ‘insinuendoes’ against it." 1975: "In recent years, potatoes have been maligned as over–caloric—although they are equal in this respect to the same–sized apple." 1997: "Potatoes fall into three types. Potatoes containing relatively high moisture and low starch . . . are called boilers." On salad dressing, in 1951: "Ingredients for good [salad] dressings should be mutually stimulating without incongruities or an individual striving for supremacy of flavor." 1997: "A salad dressing is best described as an uncooked sauce and, like all sauces, its role is to enhance the flavor of the food."

The differences between this new Joy and the one published twenty–three years ago reflect the revolution that has taken place in America’s cultural life. Does anybody want to listen to a crotchety, self–confident individual anymore, especially if she might be considered old–fashioned and irreverent about what we can only call food–worship, who doesn’t even have the credentials that have come to be accepted as de rigueur in the food writing/cooking/eating world? The editor of the 1997 Joy says "everybody works for a living now. Cooking has become more of a noble calling. It’s not something you have to do." And who now wants to do it, in the unpretentious and cheerful way Irma did? Who respects the craft, the humble work of daily life, the universe of home, where "amateur" and "professional" have little meaning? Who cares about all the dimensions of how we nourish ourselves, the geographic, agricultural, economic, and religious traditions that imbue our food with richness and meaning, when they can get a series of formulas, a quick fix on any nation’s specialties? Who will be impressed that Irma Rombauer (who, quite as a matter of course, cites or quotes Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley, Fred Allen, Saki, and Groucho Marx, among others) lives in a literate universe?

Irma’s voice is gone, replaced by a bland, impersonal, collective presence that lacks what was best about the old Joy: the unmistakable companionship of a humorous, friendly guide. Gone, too, are all the Finn family favorites: the Bunny Cake covered in fluffy white icing with broom straw whiskers and raisin eyes, snuggling into its bed of jelly beans every Easter; the Hurry–up Cake and Butterscotch Brownies, our contribution to dozens of school parties and bake sales; Mincemeat Drop Cookies, a surprisingly delicious way to stretch my green tomato mincemeat. The ice cream chapter, which included more than sixty recipes in 1951, is gone without a trace. Can this be progress?

We’ll have to wait and see whether the youngsters whose introduction to Joy is this lowest–common–denominator compendium are still buying it twenty years from now. In the meantime, keep an eye out for the 1951 edition, my favorite and the one I’ve given my daughters. It crops up regularly in second–hand bookstores.

Molly Finn is a writer living in New York City.