Joy of The Joy: How to slay a dragon

The Joy of Cooking, 1931 edition. Very few of these still out there.

The Joy of Cooking, 1931 edition. Very few of these still out there.

Welcome back to our series on that classic American cookbook, The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer. Last post (How to Enjoy a Wild Sheep) I promised you a dragon or, precisely, a cookbook with a dragon on its cover.

Nowadays, and in fact since the 1960s, you have a standard Joy-of-Cooking cover. It’s basic, clean, iconic. It has ‘Joy’ in extra big modern type, below it ‘of cooking’ all in capitals, and the red/white palette of Italian restaurants. It’s the cover of a book that knows it’s a classic.

The first edition (1931) was something else. On it, a cut-out illustration of a woman, head encircled by a halo, body ensnared by a great dragon. She is beating her captor with a mop or broom; she is St Martha of Bethany. Look at the cover, look at it. Why?

Martha is the patron saint of cooks and servants, a distinction given her because of this part of the book of John (12:1-2)…

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him.

Yep. And this part of the book of Luke (10:38-40)…

Velazquez, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, London, National Gallery, c. 1620

Velazquez, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, London, National Gallery, c. 1620

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village [Bethany] where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

Set the bar high, did Martha, patron saint of barely mentionable domestics and whining scullions. So. The Joy of Cooking cover illustration of 1931 did not draw on the Biblical Martha. Her real claim to fame and cover (that dragon run-in) can be traced to the popular legend concerning the later part of her life, the part to which we now turn.

Of Cooks and Dragons

St Martha with her dragon

St Martha wins the hearts and minds (and presumably souls) of the local peasants, by taming their terrible dragon.

According to the Legenda sanctorum, a medieval collection of saints’ lives, Martha, unmarried, left Judea circa the year 48 for the south of France. It was a business trip. Alongside her sister and brother she began reforming the local polytheists and performing the odd act of charity. “Right facound of speech, and courteous and gracious” is how she projected herself, already an improvement over the earlier Martha, but not yet dragon-bopping heroical.

When Martha went to Tarascon she met with tales of ‘a great dragon’, a menace of such anatomical perversity that its description alone recalls the whole of creation:

‘Half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than an horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent … with two wings on either side … strong as twelve lions or bears.’

When pursued the beast had a nasty habit of shitting, in quantities measurable by the acre, putrid streams of white-hot lava. Surely, cried the townsfolk, but a wee volcano-arsed dragon will be no match for that Lord of yours. So Martha set out.

The fearsome dragon of Tarascon, known as the tarasque.

The fearsome dragon of Tarascon, known as the tarasque. Here shown feeding.

She happened upon the creature in the woods between Arles and Avignon, where it was casually devouring a man (presumably without a marinade?) and not paying anything else much attention. A natural dragon-hunter, Martha thrust a cross at the beast and squirted it with some holy water. It submitted to her instantly and she bound up its limbs with her girdle, which she had removed for that purpose. (No mention of any mop.) After presenting her captive to the people of nearby Tarascon, who quickly set upon it with spears, St. Martha decided to settle permanently in that place as a sort of hermit-nun (i.e., she retired to Provence).

Now see if this makes sense to you. Our cookbook-cover heroine finished the rest of her days ‘daily occupied in prayers and in fastings … She eschewed flesh and all fat meat, eggs, cheese and wine; she ate but once a day.’ Martha may have run the best diner in Bethany, but she ended up a hermited, teetotaling, subsistence-level vegan. Thus, dubious, methinks, is become her bid for patron saint of cooks and servants.

But Irma Rombauer – ‘precocious’, according to her family, and agile of mind – was not a-feared of dubious bids. See what I mean as this series continues.

Joy of Cooking, 75th anniversary ed.The Joy of Cooking, 75th Anniversary Edition, by Irma Rombauer, et al. (Scribner, 2006)
In addition to hundreds of brand-new recipes, this JOY is filled with many recipes from all previous editions, retested and reinvented for today’s tastes. This edition restores the personality of the book, reinstating popular elements such as the grab-bag Brunch, Lunch, and Supper chapter and chapters on frozen desserts, cocktails, beer and wine, canning, salting, smoking, jellies and preserves, pickles and relishes, and freezing foods.

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