Ethan Becker always knew the cookbook his grandmother wrote in 1931 had become a part of the fabric of American culture. He learned just how big a part one day when a food editor showed up at his home uninvited and proceeded to lecture him. How dare he take the orange chiffon cake icing out of the most recent edition of the Joy of Cooking? That icing was a favorite in this woman's household, and she took the omission as a personal insult.
Looking back on the incident, Becker chuckles. "The good news is that there's a strong sense of ownership. And the bad news is that there's a strong sense of ownership."
Indeed, with each revision of the influential cookbook—self-published by Becker's grandmother Irma S. Rombauer, carried on by his mother, Marion Rombauer Becker, and now steered by Becker—new recipes have appeared and old ones have vanished, mirroring the tastes of the times. This fall, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the book Julia Child called "a fundamental resource," Scribner is publishing a ninth hardcover edition of the book, and it promises to again whip up strong reactions. Crockpots are back, low fat is gone and sushi rolls make their debut. Let the games begin.
The Joy of Canned Soup
Provoking controversy was probably the farthest thing from Irma Rombauer's mind when she wrote The Joy of Cooking: A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat in 1931. The St. Louis widow was not a gourmet; she merely wanted to teach neophytes how to get dinner on the table for their families. Her grandson, Ethan Becker, refers to an old family joke: someone said to Irma, "If you wrote a cookbook, who would buy it?" Still, Irma was apparently a terrific hostess and knew who to ask for good recipes, so the book comprised recipes she collected from acquaintances and friends.
She sold the book out of her apartment until 1936, when the Bobbs-Merrill Company of Indianapolis (later publisher of Ayn Rand) published an expanded edition. Irma's affable spirit was a hallmark of the early editions. She addressed her readers as girlfriends, not students, and loved old-fashioned dishes made from scratch as much as she adored meals created with modern shortcuts using processed ingredients like canned soups and condensed milk. Joyalso introduced a new style to the way recipes were written. Instead of listing ingredients at the beginning, the book's "action method" integrated them into the recipe, printing them in boldface as they were used in making the dish. This style took up much less room on the page and is still used in the book today.
In 1943, Irma updated Joy to reflect new developments (such as the pressure cooker); she also included recipes suggesting unrationed substitutes for ingredients limited by wartime rationing. Over the years, Irma's daughter, Marion, had contributed artwork and helped with recipe testing, and by the late 1940s she began working with her mother on a new edition of Joythat would embrace postwar developments like home freezers as well as Marion's interest in healthy food.
When a series of strokes forced Irma to take a break from Joyin 1955, Marion took the reins. She released a 1963 edition shortly after Irma's death (in 1962), which established the book in the canon of works that included The James Beard Cookbookand Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This Joywas encyclopedic, with background information and "desert-island" instructions for doing things like purifying drinking water.
Twelve years later, Marion, battling cancer, persevered to publish a 1975 edition, which would prove the most durable of all Joyeditions to date. It embodied Irma's spirit (with lines like "A bit of tomato skin was once as out of place at a dinner table as a bowie knife") as well as many of Marion's health-related passions and popular foods of the era, including granola and bulgur pilaf.
When Marion died in 1976, Ethan took over sole responsibility for Joy, although the 1975 edition stayed in print for 20 years. In 1997, the book landed at Scribner, where it underwent a substantial revision that broke strongly with tradition. The 1997 version of Joy, helmed by well-known cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli (now at Norton), minimized Irma and Marion's roles and included commissioned recipes and other material from dozens of professional food writers. It embraced food processors, microwaves and bread machines, and featured a substantial number of dishes influenced by recent immigrants.
Beth Wareham, v-p and director of cookbook and lifestyle publishing at Scribner, who spearheaded the recent revision of Joy, points out the '97 edition's emphasis on restaurant cooking and chef-made foods. "Everybody was gaga for restaurant cooking." As an example, Wareham notes, that edition's recipe for tuna noodle casserole called for béchamel sauce made from scratch, rather than canned cream of mushroom soup—an iconic ingredient and a building block for that classic American dish. "In the drive to have no convenience food whatsoever, [that edition was] unrealistic," Wareham says. "This is not 'The Joy of Slow Cooking'; this is TheJoy of Cooking." For Ethan Becker, the '97 version, like the recipes, started too much from scratch. "Mind you, the '97 had some wonderful stuff in it. [But] it wasn't built as much as it should've been on the past."
Nevertheless, the book was a commercial success (Scribner has sold more than 1,700,000 copies), and shortly after its release, Scribner launched a series of spinoff cookbooks (Joy of Cooking: All About Grilling, Joy of Cooking: All About Vegetarian, etc.). The house also continues to publish the 1975 hardcover Joyand, in 1998, reissued the original 1931 edition.
In with the Old
For the new version, which goes on sale October 31, the editors made an effort to return to the spirit of older editions of Joy. For one thing, the 2006 edition isn't overly concerned with calorie counting. Whereas the '97 edition gave readers plenty of low-fat recipes, the '06 edition includes such fattening favorites as Beef Fondue and a creamy dish called Shrimp Wiggle. It also brings back foods that, for various reasons, have made their mark on America's palate but were dropped from previous editions, such as ice cream, martinis, chop suey, jellies and jams, plugged watermelon and Popsicles. As for new items, there are breakfast bars, enchiladas, flavored vodkas and millet cakes, among others. Of the 4,500 recipes in the book, 4,000 were retested and updated, and 500 are new.
The language is different, too. While the '97 edition gave readers long-winded essays by well-known chefs, the '06 edition will bring back some of the quirky commentary made by Irma and Marion in older editions. Wareham refers to the section on yeast breads to illustrate this point: in a 1970s edition, Irma and Marion wrote, "If you've never made yeast breads, behold one of the great dramas of the kitchen"; while in the '90s, the authors stuck with the humdrum "bread is as old as the stone age." "It's just got more charm, it's more fun," Wareham says of the revision. "The intention is to carve out this voice again, prune all the BS away, so that the voice is clear, and to celebrate the great food this book has had over the years."
Becker, Wareham and a core group of about nine editors spent four years working on the revision. Outside of the editorial work, of course, the team spent a full year testing recipes at the Joytest kitchen in lower Manhattan. The editors estimate they went through 485 pounds of red meat, 3,000 eggs and 700 pounds of assorted flours.
Scribner is going all out to promote the new Joy. It has announced a $500,000 marketing plan, which includes bookseller giveaways like refrigerator magnets, buttons and aprons, as well as national print ads and holiday catalogues. Molly O'Neill will write a New York Times feature on the book, and the publisher is working with parenting magazines on "Generations of Joy" stories with child-friendly recipes. The Food Network will air a documentary on the book's history, and Ethan Becker will do a radio satellite tour. There's an online component, too: www.JoyofCooking.com will be relaunched with new interactive features, and podcasts and video podcasts featuring Becker and demonstrations from the Joy test kitchen will be available online in September.
Irma as Reigning Champ
For all the recognition Joy receives as America's unofficial food bible, there are certainly other books out there that do give it competition. Becker and Wareham cite Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything as the challenger they most admire, and they approve of certain aspects of the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook, the Betty Crocker Cookbook, The Gourmet Cookbook and, in Becker's words, "what the heck's it called now—Fanny Farmer."
Still, Joy is the book that all other 1,000-plus-page all-purpose cookbooks are measured against, and Becker doesn't see that changing anytime soon. His grandmother's voice has coached home cooks through Thanksgiving dinners and weeknight family suppers for 75 years, and the new edition of Joy has brought her words back to the forefront. "If I made [the new edition] 10 times as good as Mom and Grandmom's book, it would still be Granny's book."