John Becker, coauthor with wife Megan Scott, updates his great-grandmother Irma S. Rombauer’s 1931 classic Joy of Cooking (Scribner, Nov.).
The first Joy of Cooking was written by your great-grandmother Irma Rombauer, and the book is a family business. Did you always expect to do an edition?
My father [Ethan Becker, who created two editions of Joy] always let me know that writing a cookbook was not expected of me. He was very supportive of my early dreams. Growing up, I was into flying, and then my eyesight went bad, and I knew my first dream of being a pilot was not going to happen. I ended up going to Boston University as an aerospace engineering student, and it took one semester of calculus to decide that wasn’t for me. When I decided to follow in my father’s and grandmother’s footsteps, the plan was to actually go to culinary school, but I met Megan and that got disrupted. Coming at the book as an amateur made it into a learning experience and meant I wasn’t bringing any preconceived notions.
How long did the revision take?
We started about five years ago.
If Irma could see the cookbook now, what would surprise her most about it?
Irma probably had an idea of where Marion [Irma’s daughter, who created the 1975 edition] was going to go with the book. Marion was the one who turned the book into a desert-island reference book. She wanted it to be the American version of Larousse Gastronomique. So Irma would not be surprised by that, but I think the DIY aspects—making your own tofu, curing your own bacon—would surprise her. What Irma considered a “kitchen hack” in the 1930s was opening a can of condensed soup. It was the sous vide of its day. And Marion would probably be surprised by the level of spice. Irma had a pretty free hand with seasonings for her time, but apparently the highest compliment that Marion could give was to say that something was “delicately flavored.”
What of the original did you try to replicate?
We tried to preserve the sense of being there for cooks, not necessarily trying to prescribe, but trying to be a resource for cooks. A lot of people make Irma out to be a pioneer, but instead she’s somebody who takes the stance of a peer and who is a friend in the kitchen and is ready to crack a joke and tries to add personality to stuff. I hope we’ve done a good job of making things approachable.
Which recipes from the book do you cook most at home?
Most of my nostalgia dishes are things my father cooked. He would make pan-fried burgers called Becker burgers with soy and Tabasco and black pepper. Those are my dad’s seasonings. Classic Ethan.