Rombauer and Beard: Their Words Belong on Your Shelf

Before the golden age of cookbooks began, in the late 1980s, there weren't that many options for learning a repertoire of American dishes. Betty Crocker, Good Housekeeping and Fannie Farmer come to mind, but the most popular of all was Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer.

Although I learned most of my cooking from family recipes, I received a paperback copy of Joy as a birthday gift at an early age, and used it as a cooking bible for a few years, until I developed a taste for more international food. I kept the volume on my cookbook shelf, and even replaced it -- after a hot gravy fiasco -- with the 1975 Retro Edition, more out of nostalgia than usefulness.

Nowadays, Google is the major force for finding recipes, and it was Google that randomly brought this fact to my attention, from The Writer's Almanac, featuring Garrison Keillor:

It's the birthday of Irma Rombauer, born in St. Louis (1877). She wrote one of the most popular cookbooks of all time, Joy of Cooking (1935), even though she was a terrible cook, according to her own family. But her lack of cooking experience was an advantage, because hers was the first cookbook aimed at women who did not have any experience making food from scratch.

What? The best-selling American cookbook was written by a terrible cook? I pulled Joy of Cooking down from the shelf, and took a fresh look at it. I gave it a re-test, using the one food that is consistently cooked badly, even by some very good restaurants -- broccoli. The directions say to soak for ten minutes in cold water, which I did (though I still don't know why) and to cook it, covered, in an inch of boiling water, for ten to 12 minutes. boiled it the minimum 10 minutes, drained it, salted and buttered it, according to directions.

The color was still bright green, but the texture was simply awful. It was mushy enough for a toothless baby, and the flavor was washed out. This method of cooking the veggie may have begun many an American's hate affair with broccoli.

Of course, that's only one recipe, and from experience many recipes do work (for example, the guacamole). It's a great cookbook, full of food knowledge and wisdom, and the directions are simple and entertaining. A lot of work and joy -- if not natural talent -- went into the book, and that's why Joy of Cooking is staying right where it was, on my cookbook shelf.

The Cookbook We Missed

As I wrote earlier, one of the reasons Joy was so wildly successful was a dearth of better-written, more entertaining cookbooks. One great one, however, is The Fireside Cook Book, by James Beard, which was first published in 1949. Unfortunately, it has a terrible title, which gave me the impression that I had to cook everything in a fireplace, like shish kebabs, or s'mores, so I passed it by several times in the library.

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I was shocked when I looked inside. Despite the retro illustrations and inane cultural stereotypes, it is a clearly written, comprehensive and thoroughly modern cookbook, with international flavors and dishes. You could run a successful restaurant with the recipes.

Another Broccoli Test

For his broccoli recipe, James Beard directs you to soak the whole stalks in slightly acidified water. I used a small amount of vinegar in the water, and a strange film formed on the water's surface. Following the directions, I stood the stalks up in a small amount of boiling water, with the heads out of the water, covered, for the minimum time of 8 minutes.

The salted and buttered broccoli was a brilliant green, and while it was a little too soft, it had a good flavor and acceptable texture. A few less minutes of cooking would make it just right.

The Fireside Cookbook is one of the best retro cookbooks in print. As we know, James Beard went on to bigger and better things, but some of the recipes of his later years are more complicated and require specialty ingredients. The common ingredients of Joy of Cooking and The Fireside Cookbook are simplicity and enthusiasm, and they both deserve a space on any cookbook shelf.

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