Ode to Joy

The powerful legacy of Joy of Cooking, America's favorite cookbook.

The Joy of Cooking
Photo: Courtesy of The Joy of Cooking

There's a Goethe quote at the beginning of Joy of Cooking, and it's understandable if you've skipped over it leafing toward your go-to recipe for Country Captain, blender hollandaise, or lemon bars. But the quote means something to the Rombauer-Becker family, so indulge them (and me) for a moment and take it in: "That which thy fathers have bequeathed to thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it."

That might not seem especially joyful — nor related to cooking — but think about the copy you have in your possession. (With 18 million copies in print, you almost certainly have one.) How did your Joy become yours?

The 1943 edition in my home belonged to my husband's grandmother and has the duct-taped cover and penciled-in notes to prove it. We also have twin comb-bound copies of the 1997 edition, presents from friends or relatives as we each left our childhood homes. Joy is a standard gift for newlyweds, graduates, and first-time renters and homeowners — a building block for a happy, nourishing life. It's an unexpected legacy for a book that sprung out of tragedy.

John Becker and Megan Scottare the present-day stewards of Joy. The Portland, Oregon, couple is writing and editing the next edition of the cookbook, which is slated for publication in 2019. They are proud, protective, and a little apprehensive about the task at hand: Besides being a book that generations have held dear, it also brought them together as a couple.

Megan first cracked open a copy of Joy one summer during college, when she had a kitchen of her own for the first time. "I had not grown up with Joy, but I knew that it was the bible for cooking," she recalls. When she returned to school in Asheville, North Carolina, a colleague at Greenlife Grocery's bakery told her a member of the family behind the cookbook was on staff at the coffee shop she frequented. She headed over to the Dripolator Coffeehouse and asked the barista if this was true.

John turned beet red. He had noticed Megan at the bakery, and his coworkers at the coffeehouse suggested that he ask out the very nice "cheddar-scallion biscuit girl" (no one knew her name, just that they loved those biscuits she made), but he had yet to make a move.

Megan asked John out, and soon after, he cooked a meal of coq au vin for her. Within a week, Megan moved in. "It was really fast," she says. "I definitely broke a lot of my own rules about, like, getting close, but when you know, you know."

John knew it, too, and was grateful for the clarity. His own path to Joy had been murkier up to that point. The cookbook had been the family business since 1931, when his great-grandmother, Irma Rombauer, self-published the first edition of 3,000 copies using half of her $6,000 savings. This was, to some in her circle, a baffling choice for a Depression-era homemaker known for her sparkling hosting skills but not her culinary ambition. Then again, who was going to question her? Her husband, Edgar, a prominent St. Louis lawyer who suffered vicious bouts of depression throughout their marriage, had killed himself shortly after Black Tuesday, leaving her in dire financial straits. Irma lashed a life together from what she'd always trusted: her remarkable wit, crowd-pleasing recipes, and a social circle she could count on to buy copies. By most accounts, she didn't find particular rapture in the act of cooking, but she liked showing people how to whip dishes together quickly and get back to the party.

By 1936, the book attracted a publisher, Bobbs-Merrill (which gave the smart but perhaps naive businessperson a lemon of a contract that persisted for decades). Irma devised a groundbreaking "action" method of recipe writing that worked the ingredients list into the step-by-step instructions, and the book was a stunning success. Its eight subsequent editions took into account wartime rationing, technological breakthroughs (oh, how the Rombauer-Beckers loved their blenders), new cultural influences, and shifting perspectives toward nutrition. By 1951, Irma's daughter, Marion, who up to that point had mostly contributed art and recipe testing, was a full partner in the enterprise, bringing her methodical approach to the book to balance her mother's flights of fancy. She and her husband, John William Becker, took up the mantle as her mother's health failed, and their son Ethan took it up after them.

Irma and Marion Rombauer
Courtesy of The Joy of Cooking

And then there was Ethan's son, John. Despite having grown up in the Joy family, the youngest Becker was not steeped in its lore or obligation the way his father was—and he didn't know the full story of its origins. John had lived with his mother in Portland, saw his father during vacations to Cincinnati, and only learned of his great-grandfather's suicide when a former girlfriend asked about it. It wasn't a secret; it just wasn't a topic of discussion. (Megan says she cannot bear to watch the film Julie & Julia, in which a fictionalized Irma makes an uncharacteristically crass gun-to-head gesture at the mention of her late husband.)

The revelation made a grim sort of sense to John, especially after the death of an uncle who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder — perhaps it ran in the family, he thought. "I obviously had a lot of questions," John says. He'd moved back to Asheville to work as an editorial assistant, toiling away on straight-to-library literary criticism. Saddled by severe social anxiety that he'd begun to control with medication, he entertained notions of a career in academia, but something wasn't gelling.

"I'd been to a few conferences, and I saw pretty much everybody that was in the position I was planning to be in dressed in Armani suits. I thought, 'Oh my God, how am I going to make it?'" John remembers. "I didn't have what it took, and I knew it. I was really at a crossroads as to what to do next."

And then a ghost spoke. Sitting in his father's basement with a glass of whiskey, John noticed a book that had no business being there — a volume of contemporary literary criticism. He opened it. There was an entry for his grandmother, Marion, an interview where she expressed her hopes for the future of Joy: that her sons would carry it on, and their children after them.

"I'd been told my entire life that the book was something that would be there for me if I desired it, but there was no obligation," John says. "It was like the veil got pulled back, and I knew that was bullshit. I not only felt obligated; I knew I was the only one who could do it. I look at that Goethe quote now and I think of it almost like an incantation, like a spell was cast."

He met Megan soon after, and the "I" became "we." The two moved to Tennessee to work with Ethan. They converted a double-wide trailer into a test kitchen and photography studio and started cooking through the book with an eye toward the next edition as well as the Joy of Cooking app.

The couple worked closely with the publisher, by then Simon & Schuster, throughout the whole process, learning the book inside and out. "We really went to Joy of Cooking graduate school," John says. "And we formed some serious opinions on how things should have been or how they should be." They started developing a detailed outline of their ideal structure for the cookbook. They also got married, bringing Megan into the family officially. By 2014, it was clear: John and Megan were going to take on the next edition of Joy themselves.

It is an enormous task. In the nearly 90 years since its original publication, Joy has had hundreds of recipe cuts and additions. Entire sections have come and gone throughout the years. Several revisions were controversial, roiling the cookbook's fan base. (The 1997 and 2006 editions in particular are subjects of great contention.) And then there are matters of the heart to reckon with. In 2010, John and Megan took over Joy's social media and email address and began hearing directly from the book's readers.

"Nothing really prepares you for being on the receiving end of that stuff," John explains. "'Why did you change the recipe?' turns into 'My edition was my mother's, and it's the last thing I have to remember her by.' That's a lot."

On the day I visited the Becker-Scott home, both were slightly emotional, having heard from a young fan whose mother they'd corresponded with. The girl, Isabella, couldn't leave her house often for health reasons, and cooking from the book kept her engaged with the world. They'd sent her a card, and she was overjoyed.

Now and then, old copies of Joy make their way back to the couple. I choked back tears for an embarrassingly long time as they showed me a deeply worn, obviously loved paperback copy of the 1964 edition, accompanied by a letter. The 74-year-old owner had been about to move into a nursing home, where she'd no longer have a need for the book, and wanted Irma and Marion's family to know what it meant to her. Her Joy had survived two marriages, three children, seven grandchildren, a flood, and 13 moves.

She wrote, in part, "Mine is not unique, but I feel ridiculous to hold onto it any longer, and by sending it to you, it might produce a smile. If I were to suddenly go to my 'great reward' it surely would be thrown into the trash by someone not knowing the value and the 'Joy' that the yellowed pages have created over the years. … My gratitude and thanks to your mother and grandmother, what a wonderful contribution they have made. They made our lives a bit easier, and cooking a 'Joy' rather than a chore."

That's a hell of a legacy to shoulder, and while they fully accept the weight of it (Megan admits a negative email can throw off her whole day; they both agree that John is the voice of reason — and occasional snark), there are many hands holding them up along the way. They also both genuinely love to cook, and find calm and pleasure in the kitchen — something truer to the book's title than their forebears felt. "I feel like the cooking part is when I get to be let out of jail," says John. (A variation of Megan's cheddar-scallion biscuits, from the couple's courtship days, appears in the new edition.)

As Megan says, "We both feel very beholden to Irma and Marion's legacy and what they worked so hard to create, and [we] want to do right by them. We like to think that they would have continued to update the book to remain useful and relevant to readers."

After that fateful day in the basement, John has found a measure of peace in his role as the future of Joy and the co-interpreter of his great-grandmother's vision. "I have a sense of belonging, and a sense of finality. All of a sudden, this decision that was before me had been taken away. It was a really good feeling — and also incredibly sad. When I read the letters and see what Joy means to people, I get a profound sense of needing to improve, needing to contribute, needing to make Irma and Marion's voices heard. That may sound weird, because we're pretty much rewriting the whole book. But this is how the spirit of what they were writing would translate now into us."

Don't worry, I tell them. It was bequeathed to you two. And you have earned every bit of this joy.

90 Years of Joy — a Timeline

Joy of Cooking spans nearly a century of American history, from its first publication during the Great Depression to its forthcoming ninth edition, due out in 2019. Remembering the head-spinning experience of first self-publishing the book in 1931, Irma's daughter, Marion, recalled, "Modern woman is faced with tasks almost as diversified as St. Martha's, and cooking is not the least of the problems she must meet with intelligence and understanding." Her illustration of St. Martha appeared on the cover of the first edition, as well as its 1998 reissue.

The 1998 facsimile of the 1931 first edition features Irma Rombauer's original recipes and prologue.

The 1943 edition included recipes using substitutes for ingredients subject to wartime rationing.

A section devoted to frozen foods — a new postwar commodity — debuted in the 1951 edition.

The 1964 edition is the first that Marion revised without her mother, Irma, whose health had declined.

In 1975, Ethan, Marion's son, came on as a contributor; this is the bestselling edition of Joy.

The controversial 1997 edition for the first time included recipes from paid food professionals.

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