Why Three Generations of Americans All Have the Same Favorite Cookbook

An ode to "Joy of Cooking"

Photo by Tom Taker

It was a rainy, snuggly night in November 2018, perfect for making mushroom barley soup or stuffed cabbage. I was walking home from the train when I saw it, inexplicably abandoned at the Little Free Library on my block. There, lying on its side as if after a long day of work, was that unmistakable thick white tome with the feisty red lettering on its spine: Joy of Cooking

I didn’t need it, of course. I’d brought my copy, used so relentlessly the backstrip dangled like a hangnail, when my partner and I moved in together—even though he, no slouch in the kitchen, had his own. No, I didn’t need it. But taking it felt like a moral imperative. It was the same as if I’d seen a stray kitten cowering under a bush. I told my mom, and later my best friend, who was at the time a new mother, about the intense reaction I’d had to the sight of an abandoned Joy. They both said they would have felt exactly the same way.

In November 2019, Scribner brought out the ninth edition of Joy of Cooking, which first appeared in 1931 as the self-published venture of an amateur cook and writer. Other books Americans were buying in 1931 include The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, Dash Hammett’s The Glass Key and Faulkner’s Sanctuary. The memoir of the Russian Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, granddaughter of Tsar Alexander II, was also a bestseller. In other words, books that were popular in 1931 feel very 1931. 

Bestselling cookbooks reflect the cultural moment. But what if a cookbook could avoid that fate, by changing with the times?

Indeed, popular books are always a shorthand for an entire era—and this is doubly true of cookbooks. Aesthetically and gastronomically, cookbooks capture the zeitgeist; they both reflect and create the cultural moment. Do you have a bottle of pomegranate molasses in your cupboard, from which is missing a scant quarter-cup? If so, you probably also have a copy of Ottolenghi (2008) on your shelf, now neglected in favor of something simpler, say, Nothing Fancy (2019). Today the marketplace for cookbooks is more robust than ever, catering to every possible palate and diet, but these titles have long been ephemeral. Julia Child published her epochal Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961, and it taught Americans how to cook Dover sole (filleted) and how much butter to use (more). Only ten years later, Frances Moore Lappé ushered in an era of environmentally conscious cooking with her revolutionary vegetarian cookbook-manifesto Diet for a Small Planet. A lot changed in that intervening decade, and yet today, both those books read, and cook, like time machines. Because of changes in taste, technology, nutrition and entertaining, bestselling cookbooks quickly become culinary bugs trapped in amber. But what if a cookbook could avoid that fate, by changing with the times? 

The story of Joy of Cooking is every bit as surprising as the recipe for braised bear (p. 530 in the 2019 edition). Irma Rombauer was the sociable St. Louis housewife and mother of two who, following her husband’s death by suicide in 1930, decided to parlay her savings into creating a crowd-sourced cookbook. The project was a bold choice considering the recent stock market crash, and the fact that she was not a particularly gifted cook. But Irma was a hustler. She had her modest volume stocked in gift shops as well as bookstores, and personally delivered copies to local buyers. The first readers responded most of all to her tone, which was casual, playful and above all, encouraging. A trade publication was arranged in 1936 by Bobbs-Merrill, then the largest press in the Midwest. The professionalized text lost none of its personality, as when Irma digresses from the nominal subject of wild duck to reassure her readers:

Since you may be burdened by tradition amounting in some instances to misinformation, and will in addition read and hear many things that are confusing, approach the matter of cooking with an open mind. Draw your conclusions from your experiences and be guided by your tastes and impulses. This book is supposed to be a beacon (I devoutly hope it is!) to light your way. Your path is your own and a healthy curiosity should lead you into many agreeable byways, provided you use your mind.

The full title was The Joy of Cooking: A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat. Uniquely among American cookbooks, it has never been out of print.

Irma pioneered a personal mode of recipe-writing, opening the door for people like Nigella Lawson and Deb Perelman. She’s friend who sits on a stool in your kitchen to gossip and tell you when it’s done. Her recipe for cream puffs begins, “Please cease to think of these as something to try out in your more adventurous moments. Try them at any time. They will soon prove to be stand-bys.” On banana cake, she writes, “I wish I might comment on all the cakes in this book. Please try this one if you like bananas and make the comments yourself.” The fact of Prohibition did not stop my girl from beginning her book with recipes for cocktails.

Irma’s daughter Marion was an artist, organizer, and educator, and she helped develop her mother’s harebrained project into a title with staying power. In its pages, Marion’s enthusiasm for organic gardening translated into a concern with nutrition and food science. In 1940, she moved with her husband, the architect John Becker, to Cincinnati where she became the director of the Modern Art Society (today the Contemporary Arts Center). He designed a Bauhaus-style house for them, a home they dubbed “Cockaigne” after a mythical land of ease and luxury from the French medieval imagination. All the “cockaigne” recipes in the Joy, like the fudgy brownies (pp. 764–765) I grew up eating, were developed in that Cincinnati kitchen. “Not just brownies,” my dad would say, slicing diamonds into the still-warm pan. “Brownies cockaigne.” We all just thought it was French for decadent.

The cover Marion designed for the 1936 edition is a masterpiece of modernist graphic art: a woman in a floor-length royal blue dress with a small cauldron slung over her wrist confidently raises a broom over the head of a threatening teal dragon. She is Saint Martha of Bethany, the patron saint of cooks. The dragon represents the tedium and drudgery of kitchen work, or maybe he’s just hangry. There’s a 1998 facsimile imprint that also contains the Marion’s illustrations from the first commercial editions (1936, 1943, and 1946). They’re playful and whimsical images, produced using the medium preferred by Marion and, contemporaneously, Henri Matisse: paper cut-outs. Puffed heads of dandelions introduce a section on soufflés, and two snails, cautiously touching feelers to get acquainted, crawl above the chapter on hors d’oeuvres. 

Of the 1951 edition, for which Marion was named co-author, New York Times food critic Jane Nickerson wrote, “When its enthusiastic users get together, they play an ‘it even has’ game.” We played the same game in my family, and the winning entry was always squirrel, from the section on game. That edition also marked the replacement of Marion’s paper-cuts with diagrammatic illustrations by Ginnie Hofmann, including a now infamous drawing of said squirrel being relieved of its coat, the tail pinned down under the slender boot of an elegant and capable woman wearing thick gardening gloves to protect her hands from rodent entrails. These same long-fingered hands appear throughout the book, confidently shelling clams and weaving the lattice top on a fruit pie. Newer versions still rely on pen-and-ink drawings; the hands, degendered now, demonstrate how to roll sushi and de-rib kale.

Photo by Abigail Weil

Irma died in 1962 and Marion, with significant input from her husband, assumed full control over the project. This was the first time that authorship shifted decisively from one generation to the next. A subtler shift occurred on the title page. The 1964 edition, and all the others after it, is technically called Joy of Cooking. (I like to imagine John Becker gliding through an editorial meeting with the single suggestion, “Drop the ‘the.’ It’s cooler.”) But the Rombauer-Becker family, like my own, continued to call it simply The Joy.

In the 1964 dedication, Marion writes:

In revising and reorganizing “The Joy of Cooking” we have missed the help of my mother, Irma S. Rombauer. […] We look forward to a time when our two boys—and their wives—will continue to keep “The Joy” a family affair, as well as an enterprise in which the authors owe no obligation to anyone but themselves—and you.

The work Marion put into this revision is unfathomable; as the mother’s health declined, it fell to the daughter to add editorial and legal work to her design tasks. This dedication, however, is egoless. It’s about the parent who preceded her in building a tradition, and the children who she trusts will follow. Mutability became crucial to the book’s identity. Marion, more process-oriented and health conscious than Irma, transformed it, and counts on her sons to someday do the same. Moreover, she recognizes that families grow laterally, allowing for the influence of her sons’ future wives, as her husband influenced her. It’s worth noting, too, that although the first transfer of the project was, conventionally enough, mother to daughter, Marion disregards the historically gendered dimension of cooking. The Joy belongs to the family, whatever its future permutations may be, and to the readers.

The Joy belongs to the family, whatever its future permutations may be, and to the readers.

History has borne out Marion’s hopes. The full author list of the 2019 edition is: Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, Ethan Becker (Marion’s son), John Becker (Ethan’s son), and Megan Scott (John’s wife). “An index,” Irma wrote in 1936, “isn’t literature, but a careful perusal of it will sometimes produce a poem.” The same can be said of a contributors list.

The Joy has continued to change its shape and meaning right along with American culinary culture. Marion’s triumphant 1975 edition, a full-fledged encyclopedia of cookery, remains the best-selling version in Joy history. It was the version I was raised on, my parents having received it as a wedding present in 1981. Notorious is the 1997 edition, when Ethan Becker, the only culinary school graduate in the family, hired a slate of “experts” to revise appointed chapters. John Becker confesses in the introduction to his new revision that this experiment was widely panned, and it must have come across, to Joy loyalists, as a gimmick in the dawning age of celebrity chefs. But it was good enough for me when I shipped off to college, and it’s the same volume I brought it with me 15 years later when my partner and I established our two-Joy household. You can learn more about the history of The Joy from Anne Mendelson’s Stand Facing the Stove, and the New School panel discussion The Culinary Legacy of Joy of Cooking, featuring Mendelson, culinary historian Laura Shapiro, librarian Rebecca Federman and anthropologist Amy Trubek.

Irma’s plucky voice faded after Marion took over, and Marion’s ideas about nutrition, while still compelling, are not the book’s main draw. Amazingly, neither of these pioneering authors conclusively defined the book. Instead, the infrastructure they both engineered helped it become what it is today: a reliable, updatable reference book. At least since the Enlightenment, reference is a genre not defined by individual authors, but by collective efforts; Diderot didn’t write the Encyclopédie, he edited it. The Joy’s greatest strength, I’m convinced, is the flexibility that has allowed a single title to expand, to express changing priorities and encompass new ideas, to make room for new generations. You can’t tell a Joy dish from the way it tastes as much as from the way you feel while cooking it. If there is a Joy of Cooking style, it’s not culinary but literary, a voice that is clear and reassuring. For a cookbook to speak to you, it has to understand you, not the other way around. It helps if you both come from boisterous omnivorous families, unafraid of change. 

In the end, I didn’t take that errant Joy. My dedicated cookbook bookshelf was overflowing, and all my friends who cook already owned a copy. But I like to imagine someone else finding it, recognizing it from a delicious childhood memory, and taking it home to an entirely different life than it would have had in my kitchen. In the preface to the 1943 edition, Irma wrote, “My daughter says that when my book is praised I purr like a cat.” I hope she’s looking down on her great-grandson’s edition, the book’s ninth life, and purring up a storm.

Before you go: Electric Literature is campaigning to reach 1,000 members by 2020, and you can help us meet that goal. Having 1,000 members would allow Electric Literature to always pay writers on time (without worrying about overdrafting our bank accounts), improve benefits for staff members, pay off credit card debt, and stop relying on Amazon affiliate links. Members also get store discounts and year-round submissions. If we are going to survive long-term, we need to think long-term. Please support the future of Electric Literature by joining as a member today!

More Like This

The Life of a Male Writer, Told By the Women Who Couldn’t Write His Story

In "The Sweetest Fruits," Monique Truong reimagines Lafcadio Hearn through the women who loved him

Sep 6 - JR Ramakrishnan

Rebecca Makkai and Lisa Gornick Discuss Memory, Trauma, and Roasted Peacocks

Gornick’s new novel “The Peacock Feast” is a family saga with a cameo by Louis C. Tiffany

Jan 31 - Rebecca Makkai

8 Cookbooks You Can Read Like…Books

From histories to family secrets, some of the most delicious tales around can be found between the recipes

Dec 15 - Jaya Saxena
Thank You!