'The Joy of Cooking' Is the Cookbook That Can Get You Through Anything

Since the Great Depression, The Joy of Cooking has been there to help home cooks make the most of what they have and feel confident in their kitchen.

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

There are plenty of people who make most or all of their meals at home for pleasure, necessity, or habit, but many of us rely on restaurant, deli, gas station, store-bought, readymade, or some other kind of convenience food for at least a portion of our daily sustenance. That's not always a safe or easy option these days. Granted, neither is grocery shopping, or even access to ingredients, but you've got to get sustenance into your body somehow, so to the kitchen you go. And hey — there's a copy of The Joy of Cooking. Maybe it's your great grandmother's edition with a cracked spine and stained pages, or maybe someone gave it to you when you graduated or got married, or you picked up a volume for yourself at a point when you were suddenly responsible for getting yourself fed.

That's how Joy entered Megan Scott's life. As a college student working on a North Carolina goat farm over her summer break, she had a kitchen to herself for the first time and quickly realized that she'd picked up a few dishes and techniques by watching her mother, but she didn't really know how to cook, herself. Though her mother was primarily a devotee of Southern Living's cuisine, Scott had come to understand that Joy was "the bible" of cooking advice, so she headed to her local Borders Books. The recipes and techniques were effective and empowering, and her enthusiasm for the book led her to chase down a rumor that John Becker, the great-grandson of the author of the original self-published 1931 edition, Irma S. Rombauer, worked at her local coffee shop.

From Joy came love. Scott and Becker married soon after that fated meeting, and eventually took on his family business, first testing recipes, then helming the Joy of Cooking website and communicating with the book's many generations of fans, and finally taking on the weighty task of updating the book for the first time since 2006. Should you care to snack on stats, that entailed testing and revising over 4,000 recipes from previous editions, as well as adding 600 new recipes that they felt were either missing or necessary to reflect the changing desires, sensibilities, and demographics of today's America.

Last year, as the couple was in the final stages of wrapping up their debut edition as editors, they sat down for a conversation with Food & Wine about the mechanics of taking on such a monumental project, the pressures that come with being the stewards of a legacy, and why Joy has stood the test of time.

Their answers have been condensed and edited for clarity. Listen to the full interview on the Communal Table podcast.

Joy is a book that unexpectedly came out of tragedy. Could you explain a little bit about that?

Becker: My great-grandmother, Irma, had raised two children, Marion and Edgar, who had moved out of the house. Her husband, Edgar Sr., was suffering from prostate cancer and also was prone to depression. He died of suicide around the beginning of The Great Depression. Irma had no financial livelihood to speak of. She did have some savings put away, but not very much, so she just for no compelling reason decided to self-publish a cookbook with about half her savings, around $3,000. We're all indebted to Ann Mendelson for writing a very thorough history of the early years of the book in Stand Facing the Stove, and a lot of this information has also been passed down through my father.

Scott: She sold copies to all her friends and family. I think a lot of people were a little confused as to why she was writing a cookbook. She was known for her hosting skills, but not so much for her cooking skills. It seems that her goal was to hang out with her friends, have something tasty to snack on, but she really just wanted to be where the action was and not in the kitchen.

In some earlier editions, there's a notorious illustration of how to properly skin a squirrel and kill a turtle. Yes, it was the Great Depression, but is that what society ladies were eating at the time?

Scott: The squirrel comes up a lot.

Becker: A lot of people think that the game recipes were from the first edition, but Irma was a fancy lady, so actually a lot of those were added in the '60s edition. Irma passed away in the early '60s, and [her daughter and co-author] Marion Rombauer Becker published her first edition in 1963. She came at it with a completist attitude where she wanted to create the kitchen work. She had a very modernist sensibility and wanted it to be all-encompassing. You could go to this book for answers regardless of whether or not you had a muskrat in front of you, or if you're trying to figure out how to chiffonade some basil.

Older editions might seem sort of fusty to us now, but Irma and Marion were rather ahead of their time on some things, it seems.

Becker: I never got to meet my grandmother, but she was very conscious of nutrition in general, and she actually did include a calorie counting chart in the back of the book.

Scott: She had a lot of early recipes that weren't called gluten-free then, but it was wheat-free or made with different starches and flours, and this is like the '60s and '70s. I don't think this was from a health angle, but she had things like tofu and soy milk recipes in the book pretty early on.

Becker: She was corresponding with Shurtleff and Aoyagi, who wrote The Book of Tofu. She was really into soy.

It's become, like you've said, something of a bible for families throughout the decades. Copies are handed down as a rite of passage, or as a symbol that hey, kid — you're on your own. What's it like to be the stewards of the intimate relationship that people have with the book?

Scott: Recently a woman posted on Instagram about her grandmother who was 102, I think, who gave her her copy of Joy of Cooking. It's so emotional for a lot of people, and we take that really seriously and we want to respond in kind. We know how important the book is to people, so we're trying to do our best to not mess anything up, but also honor people's experiences and relationship and memories with the book. We receive emails fairly regularly from readers, but we sometimes receive letters, and in one particular case, a woman was moving into an assisted living facility and she wanted to send us her extremely beat up copy of Joy of Cooking. It was in a bag and had a note along with it. We were both in tears.

Becker: It was literally in pieces and rubber banded. It was like, "I fed an entire family out of this book." I guess I knew that it was a kitchen talisman for so many different families, but I definitely did not expect to have just such a deep connection with complete strangers. It's changed my life for sure.

Brace for impact because so much more of that is coming. I've seen the rigor that you have put into this new edition. Blood, sweat, tears, sleepless nights, anxiety.

Scott: All of the above.

Becker: We've added over 600 new recipes. The publisher, when they tally up the number of recipes for press releases and whatnot, counts variations on recipes, but on the page, it's over 2,600 recipes. Translated in the way that our publisher is counting, where you add a few optional ingredients and all of a sudden it's a new recipe, it's over 4,500, I think.

Scott: There are a few recipes that friends contributed, or we asked people we know if we could use a recipe of theirs that we love, but we personally developed and tested all of our own recipes. Then we had a small team of testers that we used to help us test recipes we were developing, as well as older ones that we were either tweaking or we just wanted to make sure that it worked.

Becker: For the ones we developed, we wanted to make sure that they worked for other people. Some of the legacy recipes that we felt like were pretty solid to begin with, we handed off to testers. It was all done in home kitchens. No test kitchens, no…

Scott: Nothing fancy.

I'm marveling over this because I've seen your kitchen and it's a lovely home kitchen, but I was surprised to find out that the two of you were real people from the family, not a corporation. Joy is that much of an institution in my head.

Becker: We frequently interact with people who just assume that they're talking to a social media manager as opposed to an author or editors, or whatever we are. It's a blessing and a curse because I feel like because there are no strong personalities associated with the book, that allows people to imprint on it where it's not necessarily John and Megan's book. It's their mom's Joy of Cooking. There are pros and cons to it.

Scott: We do want people to know that there are people behind the book who care very deeply about it and about the readers of the book, and we're not just a faceless corporate institution.

Becker: That certainly has been the struggle ever since we got involved is just to let people know that yes, we are real.

Please note this, people. When you're interacting with them on social media after the book comes out, and maybe your grandmother's favorite recipe is not in there anymore, keep that old edition.

Scott: Yeah, don't throw away your old edition.

I just don't want anyone to yell at you for that. But speaking of getting emotional over food, when you were cooking that many dishes, were there any that you just couldn't face for whatever reason? Food is complicated.

Becker: There are very few things that I can say that I dislike. I can't even really think of anything off the top of my head.

Scott: You have things that you love, and I'm sure there are foods that hold emotional significance for you, but you don't seem to attach negative emotions to food very much. One of our first conversations was about how we both loved blue cheese, and I was like OK, I can work with this. You liked the biscuits I made at the bakery, and then you cooked for me. You made me breakfast and you made me coq au vin. You were willing.

Becker: Did I make a Thai curry for you that was too spicy?

Scott: You did. Oh my god. No, it was fine but you had put a couple whole Thai chiles in there, and you didn't tell me. So I ate one and it was halfway down my throat before I realized that I had just eaten a whole chile.

Becker: I'm a jerk like that.

Scott: But it was really delicious. Once I stop crying, it's all going to be fine.

It must have worked out because you'd been together for three months when you decided to work on Joy with John's father. What was your role in the book at the time?

Becker: The recipe testing took place in a renovated double wide trailer for a while. It was all going towards the next edition in a very vague way that was just like, "OK, you're going to apprentice with us, and you're going to test the recipes that were in the last edition." That was how we started working for the family, and a lot of stuff got tacked on. We ended up doing an app for iPhone and iPad. That was a huge deal and gave us the best understanding we could possibly have of how that book is constructed and what needs to happen. It meant taking Word documents and trying to structure them with metadata, proofreading transcriptions that the publisher paid for, proofreading the entire damn thing before the app developer got it. I don't even know how many times we've read through the last edition, not to mention the new edition.

But, we kept copious notes throughout the entire thing and we ended up with a really, really good outline going into working on the new edition in earnest. We planned to do each and every individual section of each chapter, what we were going to cut, what we were going to add, what weaknesses we thought the book had.

America looks different technologically, racially, culturally from when the original editions came out — even since the last edition. I understand that you really wanted to reflect the reality of who Americans are and do it in a respectful and responsible way, and it's the ethical and moral duty of everybody who's working in food to make sure that they're giving credit where it's due and to have a wider lens than the authors may have had in the past. How did you approach that?

Becker: It's hard to choose the right language to talk about that aspect of it. When we put out the press release for the new book, the publisher was emphasizing how we were coming in with more international recipes. That's okay to say, I suppose, but it's not international at all. These are our neighbors.

Scott: Our fellow citizens.

What are a few of the new recipes that you've added?

Becker: We have a recipe now for kalbi. What other recipes did Yeojin [Park] help us with?

Scott: Japchae, the sweet potato starch noodles that are sauteed. There are carrots in there. We have a close friend who helps consult on those recipes, and for the japchae, she provided the way her mother makes it, and she helped consult with us on our kimchi recipe because it's something we love.

Becker: We also have chicken makhini masala, contributed by a friend of ours, Kusuma Rao, in Portland who is an amazing chef who does Indian food. She's actually from the Southwest, so it's interesting that in a lot of the stuff that she does, combining the southwestern chile culture with her home cooking, Indian-American home cooking. But a lot of the time, we've just researched the hell out of something before we even attempt to write a recipe.

Scott: And done a lot of eating.

Your spice pantry is beautiful. I took a lot of pictures of it.

Scott: We have all of our spices arranged on these two shelves in our kitchens in jars, which is probably not how you're supposed to store them, but we do use them.

Becker: They're getting a little bit more light but at the same time, we try to keep the spices whole and grind them in smaller batches, so I feel like we're doing okay with the spice upkeep. Some of them we don't use very much. Like celery seeds, how often do I pull those out?

I feel like many people might miss the fact that there's plenty of humor and humanity in Joy.

Becker: We try to honor that. People like Ann Mendelson really tried to emphasize that Irma was one of those quirky wits. I did an interview a few days ago with somebody about pasta salad and how it's appeared in the book over the years. The first recipe for pasta salad is in the 1943 edition, and her headnote is, "This is much better than it sounds." There's always little nuggets of real talk in there.

Scott: There was one, I think the headnote said, "I wish I could think of something clever to say for every recipe, but here it is."

And there are cultural references that you have slipped in.

Becker: We got to do a Twin Peaks reference for the cherry pie.

Scott: And we have been emailing with Kyle MacLachlan, which doesn't feel like a thing. [Ed note: He ended up writing a blurb for the jacket.]

Please tell people what Cockaigne is because people always think I'm mispronouncing "cocaine" when I say this.

Becker: In the cookies and bars chapter, we explain it really well, but basically it's the Germanic/European version of Big Rock Candy Mountain. It's this magical land where fowl are asking to be eaten and...

Scott: The roast fowl run through the streets, and I don't know, pastries rain down from the sky.

Becker: The river is flowing with wine and whatnot. It was the name that Marion had given to her house in Cincinnati. They had eight acres of farmland at that time. Now, it's a developed suburb, but my grandfather was an architect and he built the house. It's like a Bauhaus style. It's a sad story because my father ended up selling the house, but that's where I spent my summers. It was a fantastic place, and I can understand why she called it that, but all of the recipes that she developed in that kitchen that she was really proud of, she called Cockaigne.

What are your hopes for this edition?

Becker: The ethos behind the book as I've interpreted it is that we're trying to be there for home cooks, people that find themselves in the kitchen. Of course, it would be great to get more people in the kitchen, but we're there for people who are actually like, OK, I've decided to start cooking. This is not a glossy food magazine.

Scott: It's not a sexy book, but it's a pragmatic book, and it's written for people who have questions.

Becker: We try to anticipate what people are going to be asking when they are actually in the kitchen, or when they're in the grocery store and they encounter an ingredient they had never seen before. It's just really hard to boil down to one thing because it's such a large book.

Scott: We want the book to be there for cooks in their hour of need. We're not trying to imbue cooking with some kind of moral weight or goodness. We understand that people cook for all different reasons. Some people cook because they like to. Other people cook because they have to, and they maybe don't like it, but they're still going to have questions, and we're trying to provide answers in a measured, friendly, approachable way that doesn't shame anyone for not knowing the answer already or doesn't assume a lot of knowledge.

Becker: We're there for novices but we're also there for more seasoned cooks. Seasoned cooks who may need a refresher on, I don't know, the best way to whip egg whites or...

Scott: How many cups of water do I need for two cups of wheat berries? It will be there.

Becker: There are so many cookbooks out there that are niche or restaurant cookbooks or whatever. They're all great, but just by virtue of the fact that they're not as big as ours, and they didn't have 90 years to refine the message, they're not going to be telling the whole story, and we're hoping to be there as a supplement for all of those awesome cookbooks that are out now.

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