RACHEL BELLE

New ‘Joy of Cooking’ still a family affair, edited by Irma Rombauer’s great grandson

Nov 27, 2019, 3:51 PM | Updated: 4:50 pm
joy of cooking...
(Image courtesy of Joy of Cooking_

Joy of Cooking is America’s cookbook. For 90 years, home cooks have consulted its dog eared and gravy splattered pages, given the tome as a wedding or graduation gift and trusted its dependable recipes. Joy of Cooking just came out with a brand new edition, its 9th, an impressively substantial opus featuring 4,000 recipes. And you might be as delighted as I was to learn that the cookbook is still in the family.

Portland, Oregon’s John Becker is the great-grandson of Irma Rombauer, the cookbook’s original author. Rombauer was a widower who self published the first edition in 1931 using half her life savings. Becker and his wife Megan Scott spent the last nine years recipe testing, editing and adding 600 new recipes to the cookbook. In fact, Joy of Cooking was the matchmaker that brought them together.

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“I was working at a bakery and I was talking to my coworker about how much I loved Joy of Cooking because it was the first cookbook I ever bought for myself,” said Scott. “And he said, ‘Didn’t you know that the guy whose family wrote Joy of Cooking works at that coffee shop down the street?’ After my shift I went down to that coffee shop, which I had been to many times before, and I asked the barista if he knew anything about that and it happened to be John. He sort of blushed and said, ‘Yes, that’s my family.’ We had some more conversations and I ended up asking him out on a date. But yes, it was absolutely like, I can’t believe there is still a family behind this because it was such an influential book in my life.”

Their new edition balances old, tried and true recipes with the modern palate; dishes from different cultures, vegan and gluten free recipes, popular ingredients. They also filled in some gaps.

“For example, we did add some recipes that we considered to be classic American like a Chicago-style deep dish pizza,” Scott said. “St Louis Gooey Butter Cake, we did not have that which felt odd since Irma was from St Louis. But then we also did ask ourselves, what are people wanting to cook now? We included a recipe for shakshouka, which is a tomato sauce with peppers and you crack eggs into it and cook the eggs in the sauce.”

But it’s also their family’s cookbook.

Joy of Cooking is kind of a view into what Americans are cooking at any given period in time but it’s also a view of that through this one particular family,” said Scott. “So there are some family recipes that John and I included. For example, I wanted to put my great grandmother’s recipe for chicken and dumplings in the book. I have a recipe for a mimosa pound cake that uses champagne and orange zest that’s really delicious that I love to make.”

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Lots of recipes had to go, but Becker says they took the editing process very seriously.

“This is something that gets passed down from one generation to the next,” he said. “It certainly made us apprehensive about changing the book. We really wanted to be humble and respectful in how we approached this revision.”

But some decisions were easy.

“There was a recipe for Shrimp Wiggle which is a terrible, kind of horrifying dish. It’s a bechamel sauce made with clam juice and ketchup. It has shrimp and peas in it and you put it on toast. It did not test well. There were a few things like that where we felt like, okay, this dish has had its day and it’s time to say goodbye.”

One of the most popular recipes, that they hear praise for often and can’t ever remove from the book, is the basic pancake recipe.

Today’s cookbooks are usually glossy affairs with gorgeous food styling and photography. But Joy of Cooking sticks to its utilitarian roots. No photographs, only some black and white illustrations and papercuts.

“Irma [Rombauer] and [her daughter] Marion really fought with the publisher to keep photographs out of the book in the 1950s for various reasons. One of them being that they felt photographs would date the book and make it look old. They wanted the readers to feel like they could be using the book 20 or 30 years down the road. I think that happened because we still have readers who have their 1963 edition and they reference it often. We wanted to keep in that spirit.”

The new Joy of Cooking is for sale now for all your holiday cooking and gifting needs, as both a classic book and as an e-book.

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New ‘Joy of Cooking’ still a family affair, edited by Irma Rombauer’s great grandson