An article entitled “The Obsessive Sport of Shopping for a Vintage ‘Joy of Cooking’” by Genevieve Walker recently caught my eye on Bon Appétit’s website. The article sent me scrambling to locate my copy of this cooking tome.
According to Walker, the knowing mark of a good edition is a rather gruesome illustration of how to skin a squirrel. Sure enough, on page 453 of my “Joy,” in the “Game” section, is the infamous squirrel illustration.
The original “Joy of Cooking” by Irma Rombauer first appeared as a self-published book in 1931. Its author grew up in St. Louis in a prosperous family of German immigrants.
Irma married a young attorney, Edgar Rombauer, in 1899. Throughout their marriage, Edgar suffered from bouts of severe depression. When Irma was in her early 50s, at the height of the Great Depression, her beloved Edgar committed suicide.
There were very little resources left after Edgar’s death. With no previous writing experience and even less experience as a cook, Irma decided to write a cookbook in the hopes of selling it to support herself.
Her family found this endeavor hilarious. Cooking in Irma’s household, both in her childhood home and later her own home, was done by household servants. She was not deterred by that small technicality.
She set out collecting recipes from family and friends and eventually organized them haphazardly into an error-ridden booklet. One such error occurred in a recipe for doughnuts, where two cups of baking powder were called for rather than two cups of flour.
To get her first edition in print, Irma spent $3,000 of her meager resources to get 3,000 books published. She subsequently sold them to friends, family and social connections in St. Louis.
If a 1931 first edition of this book can be located in relatively good condition, it can bring thousands of dollars from rare book collectors. Older editions are more collectible. Alas, my 1967 printing goes for about $8 on eBay.
“Joy of Cooking” is remarkable in that eight editions have been published with multiple printings of each edition. The books chronicle American life from the Great Depression to the 21st century, covering such things as how to skin a squirrel and recipes for delicious ways to use war rations.
What Irma lacked in cooking knowledge she glossed over with effervescent but often inane commentary, as in her introduction to cooking pork: “A pig resembles a saint in that he is more honored after death than during his lifetime.”
While Irma was not a cook, she was an indefatigable promoter. Through a family connection, she was introduced to publisher Bobbs-Merrill in 1935. In December of that year, she entered into a contractual agreement that unknowingly signed away her ability to copyright her first book and subsequent others. She did this without representation of counsel. This would haunt her until her death in 1962.
Anne Mendelson’s biography of Irma, “Stand Facing the Stove,” chronicles her ongoing battle with her publisher, which continued even after her death when her daughter, Marion, took over the revision and compilation of the book.
The cookbook is still a family business headed by John Becker, Irma’s great-grandson.
For those who follow wine, Rombauer is a household name. Rombauer Vineyards in Napa, established in 1980, is owned by Irma’s nephew, Koerner Rombauer, who now has three generations of Rombauers working with him.
My 1960s printing of “Joy” includes a section on wine. Irma postulates, “Domestic wines and those produced abroad in similar mild and temperate climates do not vary greatly in quality.” Her great-nephew must find this amusing, in that his chardonnays and zinfandels consistently are named among the top wines in America, because their quality far outshines those of wineries similarly situated.
Not to be missed are Rombauer cabernets, chardonnays and one of my favorite zinfandels, available locally in the $30 to $50 per bottle range at Tyson’s Fine Wines and Things in Anniston.
Contact Pat Kettles at email@example.com.