‘Whenever I leave home and begin to move about, I am appalled to find how many people with a desire to write feel impelled to share their emotions with the general public.’
Such was Irma Rombauer’s unusual start to the 1931 The Joy of Cooking. Strong emotion was no stranger to her family – she had lost her first child within a year of the birth – or indeed to many American families at that time. The Great Depression seeped like poisonous gas into cities and homes. One of these homes was Irma’s, though not in the direct manner.
[This post continues a series on the classic American cookery book, The Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer, et al.]
Edgar Rombauer, a lawyer and an outdoorsman, did well enough in the decades between his marriage and his death, except for recurring episodes of depression. By 1930, he and Irma had raised to adulthood a son and a daughter. Irma had made herself well-connected in St. Louis society, sat on the right committees, joined the right causes; the family holidayed in Michigan and South Carolina; they had spent considerable time in Europe. But on February 3, 1930, Edgar made a hole in his head and a widow of his wife. His suicide was unexpected and devastating to those who loved him. But for Irma, alone and unemployed, emotions were no substitute for lost purpose and lost income.
What we do to transform grief, for it must be transformed if we are to live again. I don’t know how the idea came to Irma Rombauer to transform her recipe box into a book, and not just that, but to pour into the book her own spirit. It seems the idea of ordinary employment was out of the question. Perhaps she wouldn’t have been able to find a job even if she had the right sort of skills and the inclination. She had lived the life of an upper-middle-class wife; she was, should we need a model, Margot Leadbetter. (Irma was even president of the Women’s Committee of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Board of Directors.) She knew how to cook and to entertain.
She had no professional training, no professional experience – nothing, in short, that would qualify her to be the author of such a book. Who would, in a down market, become the publisher of just-another-housewife? What bookstore would stock and sell the book? Self-publishing was expensive; Irma had only a small savings in the bank and no reasonable expectation of employment. Why take the risk of writing it at all?
“Stand facing the stove”
In Irma’s famous words, if you want to cook, or have to cook, the first step is to ‘Stand facing the stove’. How simple an instruction, and yet how difficult it might have been for her in those months following Edgar’s death. Was The Joy of Cooking Irma’s way of grieving the abrupt loss of her husband, the sudden shift to meals for one? ‘For thirty odd years,’ she wrote in the prologue, ‘I have enjoyed cooking as an avocation …. In this practical outgrowth of a pleasant experience, I have attempted to make palatable dishes with simple means and to lift everyday cooking out of the commonplace.’ And out of the commonplace the love and commitment, the pleasant family life, the everyday tasks made sacred, joyful, in their regularity.
Her daughter Marion designed and illustrated the book, but the clever recipe format of later editions had not yet been thought of. For the next several years The Joy of Cooking would be sold by mail order out of Irma’s small apartment. The Rombauer savings – $6,000 – went into the first printing, of 3,000 copies, by a sign company. (It was their first book.) This recognised American classic, which has been called the most important cookery tome of the twentieth century, began its existence as a small-run, self-published recipe box.
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.