Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Joy of "The Joy"

This article originally appeared in the Mountain Courier in March 2013, and I completely forgot to post it to my blog! My friend Suzanne, who edits and writes for the paper, suggested I write the article after seeing my collection of Joys in my kitchen pantry.

The sun slowly rises over a small sea of pop-up tents, my coffee and my breath adding to the quietly dissipating morning fog. A lone jogger pads by, the only traffic at this early hour. Piles of neatly stacked root vegetables, compulsively organized by a sleep-deprived farmer, wait patiently for the 10 am rush. My numbing fingers flick through the pages of a cookbook I’m perusing, looking for recipes to recommend with today’s cuts of grass-fed beef, pork, lamb and chicken that I’m here to peddle.

I was a vegetarian for the first 20 or so years of my life and have since been playing catch-up on how to cook things like pork belly and beef tongue. My customers and I, the adult novice, have found this particular cookbook quite handy for basic information and creative uses for a wide range of ingredients, both familiar and novel. The book is the Joy of Cooking, my ultimate guide on all things food.

Farm markets vary greatly across the region and the seasons, which translates into a certain amount of uncertainty as to what will be available at any given time. Seasonal produce is preferable for freshness, nutrition and the local economy, but sometimes one just doesn’t know what to do with a pile of kale and turnips, much less the wealth of parsnips or variety meats. It is here, in the unexpected and unexplored, that a good reference on cooking becomes invaluable.

It was not my intention to collect multiple editions of the Joy of Cooking. When my first copy came to me, I was more interested in it as a book—an antique livre to add to my library—than as a cookbook. A quick read-through, however, inspired me to assemble an unnecessarily complex cake using separate recipes for the batter, frosting, filling, and probably cake syrup as well, not to mention decoration. My notes on the subject are still tucked into the pages of this 1943 edition (1946 printing).

This first Joy was a gift from my mother, purchased in an antiquarian bookshop in Vermont on the advent of my first apartment, and thereby my first kitchen. Before this, my cooking skills had approximately encompassed rice, eggs, and—thanks to a summer in a friend’s well-appointed kitchen—homemade pizza and cinnamon rolls. As a vegetarian still working on my thesis, my most elaborate dish was stir-fried vegetables with tofu. The Joy was essential to me for basic instructions, factual lookups, information on the latest new ingredient from the food co-op and rules for baking. It was indeed the ideal first cookbook.

As things progressed I acquired two more editions: a brand new 75th anniversary revision bought as retail therapy, and my grandmother’s own 1952 edition complete with her notes and clippings. My three copies currently reside with a 1972 revision owned by a roommate; four Joys in total.

Irma Rombauer’s first edition came into being in 1931 as a collection of personal recipes from her “Victorian roots” to pass on to her children as they left the nest. It was also intended as a helpful guide to the newly minted housewife, alone and bewildered in her kitchen, written to be “so clear that a child can follow it.”

The early editions were a very personal affair for Irma and her daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, who provided the first illustrations as well as helping her mother test recipes and organize the book. Irma’s wit and familiar tone lend themselves to a very friendly text in which the cook can feel as if she has a personal relationship with her cookbook and its writer. My 1943 Joy includes advice on war rationing, as well as bunches of recipes for aspics, gelatine salads, timbales and soufflés, all in the interest of disguising an array of leftovers. My recipe of choice, however, is for Crepes Suzette (essentially flaming French pancakes), which comes with an amusing anecdote about the dish’s origins with Chef Henri Charpentier and the Prince of Wales.

Both the 1943 and 1952 editions contain extensive advice on entertaining, how to execute full dinner service and from which direction the servants should serve the fish course. There is a handy chart on various fish and how to cook them, quite a lot on baking and confections, nutrition charts, wine charts, herb charts, leftovers charts and a glossary. Irma also took care to “give this book the impression of sobriety and stability it deserves [such that] the alcoholic cocktails have been relegated to the chapter on Beverages.” On the other hand, she also acknowledged that while smoking at the dinner table was très gauche (it destroys the palate), the hostess must provide cigarettes and an ash tray to make her guests as comfortable as possible.

My grandmother’s Joy, the 1952 revision, continues largely along the same track as the 1943 with general rules aimed at gaining an understanding and then a variety of applications. There are some exciting additions such as more pasta, which “takes a good deal of doctoring to make palatable,” a more organized list of household hints and with the new illustrator, Ginnie Hoffman, diagrams for everything. Irma and Marion can be seen slightly at odds in the introduction, where Irma insists that no cook will read anything but the recipe and information that he or she is looking for, while Marion believes that explaining how the book works is worth a page or two.

These earlier versions also include a fairly extensive section on game lumped in with poultry. Terrapin, of course, is now protected under the Endangered Species Act, and not many would consider squirrel a viable food source, never mind bear. While the inclusion of frog legs, aspics and the use of the singular “cooky” may give these editions a dated appearance, even the very earliest Joy in my collection emphasizes nutrition, taking note of Americans’ tendency toward overeating and not balancing caloric intake with nutritional needs.

As time and culture have progressed through the last 75 years, the target audience shifted away from the blushing bride and housewife toward an independent new cook. In the middle years, many sections bit the dust, including “Know Your Ingredients,” much of the entertaining instruction, and the gelatine concoctions. The 1970s were a time when horizons and palates were broadening, food was being shipped greater distances and people were eating tofu, of all things. Marion Rombauer Becker reorganized the book into sections on The Foods We Eat, Heat and Keep, which meant that absolutely everything was shuffled and, I found, rearranged in illogical order. The 1975 edition was the most popular Joy ever, so it must have made sense to most readers and cooks.

Which brings us to the 75th anniversary Joy, published in 2006, thanks to Ethan Becker, Marion’s son. As a Rombauer broodling and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, Ethan brought respect for heritage and tradition while being open to change. The revision he put together organizes the recipes once again by their place in a meal, beginning with drinks, then hors d’oeuvres, vegetables, meats, desserts, and finishing with methods for preserving. The glory of this edition is the encyclopedic appendix that brings back “Know Your Ingredients,” a plethora of substitution, conversion and other charts, and information on every method you might need to know. Contrary to my assumption, this edition actually contains an expanded section on game, although the handy diagram on squirrel is omitted.

So here we are, back from market with an armload of food, ready to experiment, to learn a new way of preparing a favorite squash and what exactly to do with a bundle of fiddleheads. Any bride, bachelor, or impulse shopper will find his or her way with Joy, branching out into ethnic cuisines, more modern dishes and favorite personal recipes from Ethan, Marion and Irma herself.

Epilogue: I have since also acquired a mint condition, dust jacket-intact 1964 edition of Joy. It is happily nested with the others and gets regular attention from the chef.

The original version of this article in the print edition is here as a PDF. It includes tidibits from other contributors in a four page layout extravaganza.

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