Sunday, November 24, 2013

Irma la Douce

This week ushers in the season in which millions of Americans, whether they know it or not, pay homage to the mild-mannered matron seen here clutching her magnum opus...

Should you be one of the Gentle Readers not raised in the U.S. of A., or at least in a significant middle-class swathe of it, it's hard to explain just how influential The Joy of Cooking has been for the past eight decades or so.  Julia Child may have revolutionized the way Americans think about cooking, turning the nation on to the arcane secrets of the French grande cuisine, but Irma Rombauer laid the solid foundation on which she could build.

Ours was a Joy household, a subject of some acrimony among the extended family, as my paternal Grandmother Muscato fell into the rival camp that favored Fannie Farmer and her Boston Cooking School Cookbook.  Farmer's tome predated the Joy by a generation, and in Grandmother's opinion Rombauer was far too soft on canned mushroom soup and other suspect innovations.  Even in the face of such full-on opprobrium, however, Mother's wedding-gift copy of the Boston School was, to my knowledge, never cracked, while her wartime 1943 edition of the Joy was a dogeared, stained, and intimately familiar presence in the kitchen.  It wasn't until we left our hometown - unwillingly, in straitened circumstances, and rather under a cloud - and decamped for suburban Philadelphia that she recognized the inevitable and lashed out for the 1975 edition, mostly because the spine of Old Reliable had essentially disintegrated and random pages were liable to fly about the kitchen at just the wrong moment.  Although she never fully reconciled herself to it, she held on to that version of the book until she passed into the Kitchen Eternal.

She found a copy of '75 for me to take into my first apartment, and I consulted it this evening to make the first of this year's holiday dishes, its estimable corn pudding, for an office Thanksgiving tomorrow.  We have dozens of cookbooks - Jamie Oliver, Craig Claiborne, Julia of course, from restaurants we've liked, and a sheaf from various mid-century ladies' club and the churches of your more discriminating denominations (church cookbooks are a fantastic source for reliable comfort-food recipes) both inherited and picked up at flea markets hither and yon.  As the holidays approach, though, in our house and I'm going to guess in at least a few of yours, out comes Mrs. Rombauer's baby.  I hope you have a '75 or previous (or at least anything but the abomination that was 1997), and that it brings to you as it does to me a warm and pleasant feeling to consult again its ever-patient, commonsensical pages.

My dear sister, I believe, has most of the family-heirloom cookbooks, and I expect somewhere on her shelves are both Grandmother's well-worn Boston and mother's still-pristine one.  In a drawer somewhere, I know she has the box that holds the tattered remnants of Old '43.  The ambitions of the original Joy of Cooking were simple - to instruct the budding housewife in the basic techniques of everyday cooking, circa 1930 - and its scope was limited.  Today's edition of the Joy is all over the place, with tame versions of Irma's full-fat recipes jostling for space with instructions on preparing sushi rice or a bastardized version of a fiery Ethiopian wot.  I imagine it has something corn-pudding-like, but it's not something I'd rely upon.  I have my '75, and based on dinner tonight (I made two corn puddings, you see), I can attest that it's come through for me again this year as always.


  1. The '97 edition was indeed an abomination. I have copies of many of the editions leading up to it, however, including a facsimile of the original, and even though I have a bookcase full of other cookbooks Mrs. Rombauer is the one I turn to first, every time. It was the only cookbook my mother owned, I grew up on it, and it (pre-1997) is still the most reliable and least pretentious cooking manual I own. I'll always be grateful to Mrs. R and her daughter.

  2. If only my mother had been guided by Joy. Actually, in more ways than just cooking.

  3. We in the UK at a similar time (the 30s) probably still relied upon dear Mrs Beeton for such sage advice as "Gloves are worn by ladies at dinner-parties, but should be taken off before the actual meal begins." Then, of course we had the privations of another war - food preparation during which was ably overseen by the marvellous Marguerite Patten (happily still with us) - before the continental fripperies of Elizabeth David gradually subsumed us. I am not certain any of these ladies tackled corn pudding. Jx

  4. My student's need to read this post! I keep trying to instill in them the need to know their cookbooks as social as well as culinary history.

    1. Send 'em on over - I'm happy to tell them what's what.

      Were I ever to write anything serious, I think it would be a meditation on the lost world of small-city bourgeois America (Yankee edition), and the intricate, invisible network of givens and expectations our parents and grandparents navigated, the arcane divisions into "nice" and "common" that ruled their lives, the hierarchies of cookbooks, silver patterns, denominations, street-by-street neighborhoods and so much more.