John Becker wasn’t the first guy with an English degree unsure of what do with his life. He was thinking of doing grad school in literature – “Except I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be a good teacher.” Late one night after everyone else in his family’s Tennessee home had gone to bed, he took down a biographical dictionary from the bookshelves and found an entry on his grandmother, Marion Rombauer Becker, one of the authors of early editions of Joy of Cooking. The profile quoted his grandmother’s dedication to the 1963 edition, one he’d not read before. She writes: “I hope that my sons – and their wives – continue to keep Joy a family affair, beholden to no one but themselves – and you.”
Becker took it as a sign, and he and his wife, Megan Scott, have just spent nine years revising Joy, adding more than 600 new recipes, releasing their gloss on the family’s magnum opus, just before Christmas. Never out of print since its release in 1931, it has absorbed four generations of his clan’s energy, and now includes recipes for banh mi, lamb shawarma and miso ramen with chashu pork. “These things are now part of American cuisine – we didn’t do demographic testing in deciding what to add,” Becker says. The Portland-based co-authors generally upped the spice content to reflect what they view as current tastes – and their own. They’ve added dishes – kale salad makes an entry – and trendy cooking methods – sous vide and pressure cooking get lots of ink. “We try not to be too trendy, though; we didn’t do as much with the air fryer as we might have done.”
For her part, Scott, who comes from a long line of Southern matriarchs, says there are more Southern standbys in this edition. “The women in my family were all good cooks, but they never used cookbooks. When I went away to college, I realized I had lots of gaps in what I could make, and so I bought Joy. It helped me roast my first chicken.”
If it’s been a family affair for the Rombauers and Beckers, it’s also been one for their readers. I, too, roasted my first chicken with guidance from my now battered and oil-splattered Joy – a gift from my mother, when I left home. She’d received the same gift from her own mother, when she finished her philosophy degree at McGill and moved together with my father into their first Toronto apartment. “I knew a lot about philosophy,” she says, “but nothing at all about cooking. It was an absolute life-saver. Need to coddle an egg? Joy. Roast a chicken? Joy. Though it didn’t tell me clearly enough to remove the package containing giblets from the cavity.” A D.C.-based friend received two when she moved into her first place, one from her mother, the other from her stepmother, saying Joy was “one of the few things they agreed on.”
Alison Fryer, the long-time owner of Toronto’s late, lamented Cookbook Store, says she displayed Joy always in the same place on the shelves. “People would make a beeline there. Heaven forbid if we moved them! Sales always increased at the end of August when children were heading off to university and at Thanksgiving when kids would come home from college and realize they needed a cookbook.”
Anne Mendelson, author of Stand Facing the Stove, a book about the making of Joy, says, “There have been better-selling American cookbooks and ones that were more respected in their day. But none have been better loved – and it's outlasted all its contemporaries.”
There are an estimated 20 million in print, a success that Mendelson attributes in large part to the chatty, confidential voice of the author of the first edition, Irma Rombauer, a German-American then living in St. Louis, Mo. “She felt like a real person talking to you, not spouting some silly publicity person’s idea of what real people say, but the genuine article.” That Rombauer put herself across effectively in the writing is all the more remarkable for her personal circumstances at the time: Her long-time husband died by suicide in 1930, leaving her with a small legacy, half of which, US$3,000, she used to fund the publication of Joy.
Although North America was lurching its way through the Depression, the book did well enough that she was able to convince a major publisher to do a second edition in the mid thirties. In it, she pioneered one of Joy’s great innovations, what is called the “action method” of recipe writing, mixing the ingredients in with the cooking instructions. An avid entertainer, she liked time-saving hacks that could get her out of the kitchen and into the thick of a party, and so the book has its share of soup-can cuisine – to wit, a recipe for King Ranch Chicken casserole uses cans of cream-of-chicken soup for flavouring.
Mendelson also credits Rombauer’s more earnest daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, for the book’s longevity. The daughter, less of a quicksilver personality than her mother, shifted Joy toward its current encyclopedic approach, adding a concern for nutrition, a preference for fresh, unprocessed ingredients and a chapter on the hardcore art and science of bread baking. Her 1975 edition, completed shortly before her death, makes comments about the importance of moving away from a meat-oriented diet that now seem ahead of their time. (John Becker says, “Joy has always taken an omnivore’s approach – if this is what you want to eat, this is how to do it – but we’ve tried in the new sections on meats and seafood especially to speak about climate change and how the way we eat can affect the world.”)
“Readers are partisans for Irma or for Marion, but really without both of them, Joy wouldn’t be Joy,” Mendelson says.
Her grandson says, “Of the two, we’ve tended more towards Marion’s approach. She was a bookworm, a nerd in the way she went at it. But we didn’t want to lose Irma’s wit either. I never met either of them – they died before I was born – but I got to know them through this.”
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