Sunday, November 26, 2006

Happy Birthday Joy of Cooking

Here is a story I wrote recently for a local paper:

On its 75th birthday, "Joy of Cooking" is getting a facelift. Partially to correct the botched job done in the mid 90's, when much like Michael Jackson's face, too much of the good stuff had been cut away. Can it be saved-(Joy of Cooking, not Michael's face)?

"Joy of Cooking" the 1973 edition was the first cookbook I ever purchased. I was recently graduated from Western Illinois University, with my first job, and my first apartment on Cornelia Street in Chicago. It is a book I know very well and it is reliable for information and technique. "Joy of Cooking" has had a lot of influence on how I cook today.

Irma S Rombauer wrote the original "Joy of Cooking" and self-published it in St Louis in 1930 or 1931 (I have found references for both dates). The initial printing was for 3,000 copies, which she sold out of her apartment located in the Cabanne neighborhood. That book is now worth over $5,000 depending on condition. Throughout the years the book has been reissued, reprinted, and reborn millions and millions of times. It is probably the most successful cookbook in the world and has been the only cookbook named one of the most influential books of the twentieth century by the NYC Public Library.

This informative and witty cookbook actually has a dark beginning. Mrs. Rombauer wrote the book after her husband's suicide as a way of making ends meet and coping with her personal disaster. Her delightful witticisms and family stories show no hint of the tragedies she was experiencing.

Irma was born into the wealthy von Starkloff family and grew up in one of the mansions in Compton Heights. She married Edgar Rombauer, an attorney, and they were a socially prominent fixture in St Louis society. She can at times seem smug, but mostly she seems good natured and just a daughter of privilege. She shows no qualms about relating stories about her cooks-including dialect. For example in her introduction to "Never fail Hollandaise Sauce" she says "our cook calls this "holiday sauce"-isn't that a grand name for it?"

Here's what she has to say about edameme-"They really need an uplift, being on the dull side but, like dull people, respond readily to the right contacts."

Many of the mid century recipe additions suffer from the "add a can of soup syndrome" that became popular in the 1950's and 1960's. The controversial 1997 edition tried to eliminate this by replacing the sodium train-wreck Campbell's Cream of Mushroom with Bechamel. Critics and fans declared this to be pretentious and inauthentic. This new edition will try to recapture Mrs. Rombauer's original voice and a return to decidedly old-fashioned recipes but also newer dishes to reflect the revolution in contemporary eating habits. A balance she would probably approve of.

In all of its incarnations, "The Joy of Cooking" has tried to remain current to its times. Even if some of those recipes were awful, they were the way the country was eating at the time., and in this way it also provides a sort of anthropological timeline of American culture in the last century.

I began this article by asking of "The Joy of Cooking can be saved, and I will end with a rather prophetic introduction to "French Casserole Chicken" from the 1973 edition. I love the unique voice this introduction displays, slightly smug and wise, bitchy and well written enough to be confused with a piece of dialogue from Clare Booth Luce (The Women).

"Whenever we see one of our contemporaries trying to regain her youthful allure with gaudy sartorial trappings, we think of a dish we found in a collection of college alumnae recipes, called Supreme of Old Hen". We all know the supreme, in chef's parlance simply means a breast of fowl. But in this case, it really lives up to its billing and makes such a good dish out of a poorish bird that the old girl is still an acceptable morsel." What follows this introduction is a rather straightforward recipe for braised chicken, with vegetables and stock-no can of soup in sight.

Mick's Pik:Chinese Low Calorie Dressing-from the 1973 edition

Good on sliced cucumber and tomato.
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon finely chopped candied ginger

This dressing is simple, light, and delicious. I made it many times in the late 1970's, although I used it over fresh spinach, sliced mushrooms, sprouts, and toasted sesame seeds.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Very interesting info. I've always wondered what the 'story' behind that cookbook was. We received a JOY OF COOKING as a wedding present. Without doubt it's our 'go to' cookbook. We've enjoyed it so much that we've given it as a wedding present many times.

Spent Thanksgiving down on the island. Cooking out of a condo for 19 was a challenge. I fried one turkey and roasted another. For me there is no comparison....fried turkey rocks!!!!

Later cuz,