It was not the first self-published cookbook in the history of the world, but it is definitely the most successful: The Joy of Cooking, first released in 1931 by Irma Rombauer, has taught generations of Americans to “Stand facing the stove.”
For decades, Rombauer’s “action method” of writing recipes, which involved mentioning ingredients as they were used instead of listing them at the top, remained a family business. Her daughter Marion Rombauer Becker passed the torch (gas burner?) on to her son Ethan, a chef who became exhausted by disputes with the original trade publisher. In 2010, he decided that a new edition would be best handled by his own son John.
Fortuitously, John Becker had attended college in Asheville, North Carolina—and there met a woman named Megan Scott who shared his passion for blue cheese, cookbooks, and the family business. Over the past nine years, John and Megan married and took on the Herculean task of revising a new edition so that Joy of Cooking might continue to appeal to 21st-century home cooks.
And appeal it will. This new edition of The Joy includes scores of favorites (e.g., Banana Bread Cockaigne, the original pancake batter, and sauerbraten), but adds a chapter on fermentation, recipes for vegan dishes, and home versions of new standards like pad thai, chana masala, and olive-oil granola (Megan’s version).
I spoke with John Becker by telephone from his and Megan’s Portland home just before they left on book tour. I threw him a hardball about lobster rolls to start, and he was a good sport, but we also discussed Megan’s dorm-room kimchi, their “Joy apprenticeship,” and, yes, that squirrel-skinning diagram.
Bethanne Patrick: John, with your background and time in Ohio and Tennessee and Asheville, and Megan’s deep Southern roots, you have different traditions that go into the new Joy of Cooking.
John Becker: I’m the last person to claim that I’m well rounded, but I feel between the two of us, we have tasted a lot, a lot of different types of American cuisine
BP: That makes me sad, then, that I have to begin our conversation with what I call The Lobster Roll Controversy.
BP: Yes, John. Yes, John Becker. It’s a controversy. Not only do you have a lobster roll with butter instead of mayonnaise, but you recommend Martin’s potato rolls instead of Pepperidge farm split top.
JB: I guess my research failed me! I thought that the Martin’s potato rolls were the vehicle of choice.
BP:I don’t know if there’s a lobbying group for Massachusetts style versus Connecticut and Rhode Island lobster rolls, but if there is, I’m going to set them upon you.
Kidding! I kid. The reason I wanted to ask about that is because there are things in the new Joy of Cooking require decisions to be made. How did you and Megan make decisions with this new edition? I mean, I know your heart was in the right place.
JB: Well that’s, that’s just it, I hope that it comes across that our intention was to be respectful and to do our homework. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it take Cape Cod for, hands-on research. That would’ve been nice. I would’ve been really nice. I can do probably I could, I could be convinced to go to Cape Cod to do research for the next day.
BP: But food is like that. Lots of controversies, right?
JB: I was on the phone yesterday with somebody who was Cincinnati ex-pat, and he said, are you a Graeter’s person or are you an Aglamesis person? It’s this rivalry between two classic ice-cream parlors. It’s tough to navigate that kind of stuff.
BP: Right. Unfortunately you don’t have to make Graeter’s ice cream, which is the side I fall on.
JB: Me too. Me too. Graeter’s, boy. So good.
BP: The action method! minutes ago what’s out and I’m so glad that that’s not what’s, that’s fine.Sauerkraut didn’t appear until the 1963 edition, and while I can’t prove this, I know that both Irma and Marion were singled out for their German heritage during World War II.
JB: Yeah, no, that’s, we would never get rid of that. I was obviously, I was aware of Joy when I was growing up but I didn’t know the book until I was on my own in college. The action method it really does makes grocery lists slightly harder to, to write down. But in the kitchen when it really counts, it’s just fantastic. We wanted to kind of stick with that more, to us, logical way of laying out the recipes. We also tried to talk more about, how cooking can be a practice rather than a performance, in the new chapter “Streamlined Cooking.”
BP: I also liked the fact that you have the preventing waste and using scraps section.
JB: That’s our kitchen. Our stock bag is ever-present in the freezer. We really think that that’s a good habit to get into. We haven’t bought store-bought stock for I don’t know how long. I mean, that’s not something that everybody can do, but we try to give people tips on how to, if they really are wanting to incorporate homemade stocks into their cooking,
BP: Let’s talk for a couple of minutes about Irma’s favorites, like the classic BLT. How do they shape Joy of Cooking and what do they tell us about the book?
JB: It’s hard for me to answer because I didn’t even get to meet Marion. But after spending a lot of time with the old editions. We started by just testing all of the recipes out of the 2006 edition. I think we had gotten through 1,500 and after each, after each recipe test, we would do a genealogy to figure out, when it was added, what changes were made to it, everything. We got really familiar with the publication history and how things have kind of, evolved. Some of the things that really stood out to us seem funny now, like how in 1931 there were lots of recipes involving oysters, and various substances wrapped “in blankets” and with bacon wrapped around them. Who knows, her son Edgar was living in Seattle at the time, so maybe she did some recipe testing there, hence the oysters.
BP: And maybe sliced bacon was a fairly easy, new, easy commodity in supermarkets.
JB: Oh, something tells me she just really liked bacon.
BP: Why not? Good for you, Irma. One of the things I saw in the new edition is recipes labeled “Megan’s” that are quite new and different, from her favorite afternoon juice mixture with kale and ginger, to her family recipes that are sometimes very historical, such as Strawberry Sonker cake.
JB: Megan has talked about going about going at least vegetarian if not vegan, we’ll see if she sticks to that when the book work and promotion is done. We’re nine years apart in age, and while I don’t know if I can attribute her food knowledge to her youth, she’s up on a lot of the latest trends and research, both of those things.
BP: The approach, from the book’s beginnings with Irma, on through your grandmother Marion and to your father Ethan, has always been about clear, factual information. So I was excited to hear you have updated the section on caramelization.
JB: Maybe six years ago, on his blog, Harold McGee linked to a study that showed can happen at lower temperatures over time, which is new science. Caramelization can take place without the sugar actually melting—Stella Parks at Serious Eats has a recipe for toasted sugar that actually demonstrates the idea.
BP: Not that there is new science about fermentation, but in this edition of Joy of Cooking, you’ve included an entire chapter on it.
JB: There’s a lot of work to be done on the health benefits but from a flavor perspective, I think it’s hard to underestimate how important permitted codes are to the dishes we know and love. We’ve had a sauerkraut recipe in the book since the 1963 edition, but what people are familiar with, what people permit in flavors, has changed. We’ve always been known as a source for DIY recipes. In fact, Megan’s first fermentation project was making kimchi in her college dorm. Apparently her resident assistant was super angry with her for stinking up the hallways.
BP: Tell me a little about reclaiming some older recipes in this new edition.
JB: As I just mentioned, sauerkraut didn’t appear until the 1963 edition, and while I can’t prove this, I know that both Irma and Marion were singled out for their German heritage in the World War II era. So I believe that different editions don’t just show tastes in food, but also changes in society.
But speaking of Marion: She famously had a very sensitive palate. According to Ethan, the highest compliment she could pay to a gesture was that it was delicate flavors. That’s probably one of the reasons why there wasn’t as much liberal use of garlic in the earlier editions. However, I think there are some class markers there, too.We want readers to know that we’ve, we’ve really poured a lot of our lives into this and it means a lot to us and we hope it means a lot to them.
BP: Your dad, Ethan Becker, is a trained chef. I know that you had a “Joy apprenticeship” with him. Does he keep the Joy archives?
JB: Sadly, our one-time family home in Ohio, Cockaigne, which gave its name to some of our favorite recipes, is no longer in Becker hands. I spent my summers there as a kid and I was kind of surrounded by evidence of Marion, her gardens, her kitchen. After selling the property, my father Ethan moved to Tennessee, and that’s actually where we conducted my apprenticeship.
And it is exactly the most inconvenient, wrong place to do recipe testing. Your standard supermarket is about a 45-minute drive. On the other hand, we were really close to Allan Benton’s place, and his hams and bacon are the best.
BP: I’m sure you weren’t in the kitchen all the time because there are parts of the apprenticeship that are about, as you said earlier, the genealogy of the recipes and the content structure of the book.
JB: He took a fairly a light hand with us. We would be testing recipes out of the 2006 edition. We’d make huge weekly grocery trips, all-day affairs, and spend the rest of the time testing 30 to 40 recipes per week.
BP: That’s a long time because what do you have? What is it, 4,600 recipes? I know you use a few freelance testers.
JB: We got to the point where we were a little behind in our testing. A lot of the recipes just needed to have the tires given a good kick, and those we had tested by some friends, including a professional pastry chef, Nora—she even has a chocolate-chip cookie recipe named for her in this edition. But for the most part it was Ethan and us, often in our Portland kitchen, which is not super-duper tricked out. No Wolf range there!
BP: Where do all of the heirloom copies of The Joy reside?
JB: Some of them are still in Tennessee. But my dad visited not long ago and brought us two copies of the original first printing from 1931. That was a kind of crown-jewel moment. One of them is signed by Irma, Marion, and Ethan.
BP: You actually decided to take this on after reading your grandmother’s dedication.
JB: It was pretty shortly after Ethan moved to Tennessee and I was, there a holiday. I had spent a few years since graduating from college working for a former professor who needed help editing and publishing a series of books. I’d been seriously thinking about graduate school, but I knew the job prospects in academia weren’t great. Meanwhile, my father’s relationship with the publisher wasn’t great, and he asked me a question about publishing and I thought hmmmm, let me check the last edition, maybe it has that answer. I was flipping the book open and saw the dedication. I don’t know. It was late at night, it was dark, I was alone, and it just really hit me to read “I hope that my sons and their wives continue to keep the joy of this family affair, beholden to no one but themselves and you.” “You” being the reader. It was powerful.
And all that work I had done in literary research—how to do research, how to edit, how to copyedit, all the nuts and bolts—it was all worthwhile.
BP: What have you learned about your readers while working on this new edition?
JB: The connections I’ve been able to have with complete strangers still surprises me. These people have taken ownership of the book in so many different ways. I mean, this morning Megan and I were doing a radio interview and the woman asking questions said “Well, I have the original edition” and I can’t tell you how many times people say that. Of course they don’t have the 1931 original edition; there are very few of them, but whichever book was handed down to them from their mother is original for them.
One woman sent her 1960s-era paperback to us with an incredibly sweet note that basically said, I’m going to the nursing home and I’m not going to need this anymore, but it’s seen me through three marriages and helped me raise six children. Things like that are just, wow. We have a real connection with our readers.
BP: But how much do you owe readers in terms of what stays? We have a Scottish friend, an avid home cook, who visited recently and when he learned I have three different editions of Joy of Cooking he grabbed the 1975 edition so he could show our daughter the squirrel-skinning diagram. It was such really a delightful moment because you could tell it was something that had really affected him, growing up in the UK and learning something about America. But today, no squirrel-skinning diagrams.
JB: We really thought about the squirrel. A lot of people really love that illustration. We, we thought about it, but we kind of decided that the rabbit, well it’s just going to be more useful for more people and we, we wanted to make sure that no one thought that this book was trying to be kitschy. And in the 75th anniversary edition, there was a little bit of that retro feel to it, which I think just kind of detracts. It’s our mission to be an up-to-date resource for cooks. But having said that, that old squirrel-skinning illustration wasn’t even a very good way to skin a squirrel.
BP: I know that you and Megan are already working on the next edition. You kind of have to. And in 2031, you will be working on the 100th-anniversary edition. Can you talk a little bit more about how you and Megan will approach those books?
JB: I would love to collaborate with more people. I think that this addition, we really were trying to kind of go back to the way that Marian and Irma revised, kind of being responsible, basically personally responsible, for everything in there. In the last few editions, despite some great contributors and work, there was a disconnect and you could tell. There were just too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak. We felt we needed to do this ourselves, to go back to what made the 1975 such a good book.
Megan and I are, are just, we’re just incredibly humbled and thrilled to be a part of this. And that we want readers to know that we’ve, we’ve really poured a lot of our lives into this and it means a lot to us and we hope it means a lot to them.
BP: There’s one quirky thing a Twitter follower requested that I ask you: Will the pages be more resistant to drips in this edition?
JB: I wouldn’t say they’d be more drip resistant, but in general, the book is much higher quality than the last one. It’s a sewn binding which hasn’t happened since the 1963 edition. The pages lay flat, even when you’re perusing the index. It’s a slightly heavier book, and a little bigger, but somehow I find its new shape a tiny bit friendlier. I know that sounds a little subjective and weird, but the wider pages just make it feel like there’s more room for all of the information we packed in, more room to breathe.