The 'Joy of Cooking'

John Becker, Irma Rombauer’s great-grandson, and his wife, Megan Scott, oversaw the newest incarnation of "Joy of Cooking."

"Joy of Cooking" was my first real cookbook.

Sure, I had a copy of "Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls" that showed me how to make Sloppy Joes and Cheese Dreams, but I knew that wasn’t the real thing. When I got my own copy of "Joy of Cooking" by Irma Rombauer, it was big time.

You’d think two copies in one household would be overkill, but both were constantly used. If my mom was cooking one dish and I another, we didn’t have to keep flipping pages back and forth.

When my mother and I wanted to make something we’d had outside of home, like Sacher Torte at Bit of Swiss, we could both look for the recipe in "Joy of Cooking." And, sure enough, there always seemed to be a recipe for whatever we were looking for.

There was, I remember, even an explanation of how to cook beaver tails in the older editions, as well as ways to cook muskrat, armadillo, opossum, woodchuck, porcupine and raccoon, and a drawing showing how to skin a squirrel. I was sure those had been edited out by this edition, but I was wrong.

I’m not sure why that fascinated me – after all, we lived in a city, and meat came wrapped in white butcher paper tied with string, or wrapped in cellophane – but it did.

One of our family favorites was called City Chicken – chunks of veal and pork skewered on wood sticks, rolled in egg, flour and milk, sautéed, and served with mash potatoes and the gravy from the meat. It was, the cookbook explained, a replacement for fried chicken, as the price of chicken was so high. Times change.

Over the years, there have been new "Joy of Cooking" editions released, and I have several of them. It’s always fun to see what’s been added and what’s been edited out.

So when my friend, Carrie Bachman, sent me the latest, written by John Becker, Rombauer’s great-grandson, and his wife, Megan Scott, I was eager to see the newest incarnation of my favorite.

If I liked "Joy of Cooking" so much, I wondered if others also had worn copies on their shelves and felt the same way.

After posting my query on Facebook’s Southwestern Michigan Food Critics page, I received a message from Josh Gitlin, one of my good friends.

Calling it the “cooking bible,” Gitlin, who uses the 1964 edition, said, “It still has my original page folds for deviled eggs, avocado dressing and how to prepare a steak.”

It turns out his uncle’s business partner, Gene Winick of McIntosh & Otis literary agency, was the book’s agent, and was quoted in a lengthy article when the 1997 edition was released.

Another long-time friend, Jeannette Holton, contacted me and said she’d received her first copy as a wedding gift in 1978, and wore it out.

“My second copy from 1997 is just about gone now, too,” she says. “My favorite recipe is the baked artichoke dip. I make it every year at Christmas. It was a favorite of my sister-in-law, Carol Klupp, who passed away a few years ago. Now I make it in her memory. 'Joy of Cooking' taught me how to properly boil an egg, and how to cook rice. It’s the best.”

Patty Gibbons Sanders received the 1971 copy of the book as a shower gift from her mother-in-law, and says it’s the only cookbook she uses. When I asked if she had any favorite recipes from the book, she said there were too many to list.

“It’s the only cookbook I use,” she said.

Anne Overly, who I frequently exchange cooking information with, said she’d learned from her mother's copy.

“She received it as a wedding gift about 1955,” said Oyerly, who liked the idea of a contemporary update, noting that though it was a solid cookbook when it came out, it contains a lot of recipes for things we just don't eat today. “I hope the new version still includes the basic principles of cooking. I found those explanations very helpful. And I also enjoyed the short personal anecdotes tucked in here and there. I think they added a lot of charm, and hope they haven't been edited out.”

Mari Irving says she is cooking from her second copy, as the first one, which was 50 years old, wore out.

Janet Smith grew up with "Joy," and often gives the book as a gift to young women and families.

Like me, Sioux McLane learned to cook from her mother's "Joy of Cooking" in the 1950s, and from the cookbooks of Julia Child.

“I regularly use two editions of 'Joy' – 1964 and 1997 – and delight in the wealth of info,” she said.

"Joy of Cooking" was originally written and self-published in 1931 by Rombauer. In 1936, it was picked up by a publisher.

In future editions, Marion Rombauer Becker collaborated with her mother on updates. Becker’s son, Ethan Becker, revised it for the 1975 edition, and then oversaw the releases of the 1997 and 2006 editions.

I chatted by email with John Becker and Scott about the process of revising the book for its 2019 edition.

“I don’t think we had any idea what we were really getting into,” Scott said. “Of course, John had grown up around 'Joy,' so it was familiar to him, but actually working for the family business was new to both of us. When we first started working for 'Joy' in 2010, we were really just trying to get a handle on the book, which is enormous and complex. So we started by testing recipes from the previous edition and doing recipe genealogies to figure out when specific recipes were added throughout the years. We also spent a lot of time organizing family documents, from recipe test notes to correspondences, and printed-out emails from the '90s. That, combined with reading Anne Mendelson’s book, 'Stand Facing the Stove,' gave us a crash course in 'Joy.'”

Before the couple started the revision in earnest, they created a massive outline of what they wanted to do in this revision by going through the 2006 edition line by line, making detailed notes for every section and recipe of every chapter.

They also noted everything from clumsy phrasing that could be better, to things they felt were missing, to things that needed fact checking or further research.

“We tried to take nothing for granted,” Scott said, noting that for the past five years they had no work-life balance at all, working seven days a week, upward of 12 hours a day, for a very long time.

Scott had another full-time job as well, so she often would wake up at 6 a.m., make coffee, and sit down at her computer to work on "Joy," then go to her day job for nine hours, then come home and work some more on the cookbook until she went to bed.

John Becker stayed home and worked on the book all day long. They also hired three part-time recipe testers, and had a small army of volunteer testers, a freelance editor and the publisher's editor.

The work was hard, but the apprehension was, in some ways, worse.

“To say that this project was anxiety producing would put it mildly,” Scott said. “We’ve both had a lot of sleepless nights and tears over this project. There’s a lot of pressure to do well, not just from our readers and the media, but also from ourselves. We are trying to uphold and continue a tremendous legacy. So everything was done in the mindset of ‘don’t mess this up.’ We realize how fortunate we are to have been able to work on this project, but it came with a lot of stress.”

So how did they decide what to keep and what to edit out?

Because "Joy" is a “desert-island” type of book, they kept – and thoroughly vetted – the material on skinning game, making maple syrup, foraging greens, pressure-canning fish, and curing and drying meats, Scott said.

As for cutting recipes, the two decided to focus on what most modern home cooks would find practical and appealing. "Joy" isn’t a museum piece, Scott said.

They also eliminated multiple recipes that seemed too similar. For example, they removed an entire section on bread stuffing, whittling it down to one basic recipe with a list of optional ideas.

“If we weren’t sure about a recipe, we would consult John’s dad, Ethan Becker, to see if there was any sentimental or historical reason to keep it in the book,” Scott said. "We had also done recipe genealogies of around 1,500 recipes, so if we saw that a recipe had been in the book for a long time, we definitely looked at it harder and really gave some thought to whether it should stay or go. That said, a recipe being old was not enough reason for us to keep it. It had to work and taste good. Sometimes this meant tweaking and retesting. Other times, we decided to just let it go.”

All in all, they kept 150 recipes from the original book, and developed recipes on their own, too.

“'Joy’s' purpose has always been the same: to help home cooks succeed in the kitchen,” Scott said. "Irma’s approach, and one that really resonated with her readers, was to insert her personality and style into her writing to connect directly with cooks. She wanted 'Joy' to be a friend and companion in the kitchen. Marion’s approach was to expand 'Joy' to be a comprehensive kitchen reference.

"Our approach," she said, "is a continuation of Marion’s, but Irma’s original intention has remained: to help people become better cooks by delivering advice and recipes in the voice of a contemporary, without condescension or pretense.”

Miso-Glazed Eggplant

Makes 4 servings.

Position a rack in the center of the oven. Heat the oven to 450 degrees.

Lightly grease a baking sheet.

Halve lengthwise 4 slender Japanese eggplants. Brush the cut sides liberally with 2 tablespoons vegetable oil.

Roast, cut side down, on the baking sheet until the eggplant is slightly softened and just beginning to brown around the edges, 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix in a small bowl until smooth: 1/4 cup red or white miso, 2 tablespoons mirin or white wine, and 1 tablespoon sake or water.

Remove the baking sheet from the oven, turn the eggplant halves over, and brush or spread the miso mixture onto the cut sides.

Turn on the broiler, return the sheet to the oven, and cook until well browned and starting to char in spots, about 5 minutes.

Buckeyes

Makes about 45 pieces.

Named after its resemblance to the nuts of the buckeye, Ohio’s state tree. Tempering the dipping chocolate will make for a prettier buckeye, but these down-home confections do not need to be fussed over.

Combine in a large bowl or a stand mixer: 1 cup smooth peanut butter, 4 tablespoons softened unsalted butter, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/4 teaspoon salt.

Beat on medium speed until smooth. Then, add 2 cups sifted powdered sugar. Beat on low to combine, then increase the speed to medium until completely smooth.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Portion out the mixture in heaping teaspoons onto the lined sheet. Roll between your palms into smooth balls. Freeze for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, temper, or melt in a double boiler, 8 ounces chopped semisweet, bittersweet or milk chocolate.

Poke a skewer into the top of a peanut butter ball, using it to pick up and dip the candies three-quarters of the way into the chocolate, leaving a round “eye” of peanut butter exposed on top.

Place the dipped buckeyes back on the baking sheet and use the tip of your finger to smooth over the hole left by the skewer. Refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes. Store refrigerated in an airtight container.

Brussels Sprout Slaw with Spiced Yogurt

Makes 6 servings.

A warm, hearty slaw for wintertime; perfect for the Thanksgiving table.

Cook in a large skillet over medium heat until crisp 4 slices bacon, diced.

Drain the bacon on paper towels. Add to the hot fat in the skillet 2 garlic cloves, smashed.

Cook the garlic until it starts to brown, turning it to brown both sides, about 5 minutes. Remove the garlic, mince it, and set aside.

Add to the skillet 1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and shredded, and 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sprouts are tender and starting to brown, 10 to 12 minutes.

Meanwhile, add the minced garlic to a medium bowl, along with: 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt, finely grated zest of 1 lemon, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper.

Add the softened Brussels sprouts to the bowl. If there are any browned bits, deglaze the skillet with a splash of water and add to the bowl as well. Crumble and stir in the reserved bacon. Add salt to taste.

If desired, garnish with pomegranate seeds.