by Marion Rombauer Becker
This is the tale of an acorn—a few recipes circulated by my mother, Irma von Starkloff Rombauer, for a class she was asked to hold in the early 1920’s for the benefit of a Unitarian church in St. Louis—that grew into a great oak. How she loved the group which made up the Women’s Alliance! Particularly the Taussig sisters: Bella, Grace and Charlotte. With Bella Mother founded the Children’s Lunch Association, later taken over by the Board of Education on a city-wide basis. To Grace, her imposing sister, she was indebted for the insistence that when she write her cookbook it be written as though everyone were a fool in the kitchen—advice assiduously followed. From Charlotte, the youngest of the trio, whose comments on all civic crises appeared regularly in the correspondence column of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mother derived frequent edification, and not a little amusement.
There was, too, in this group Mrs. Roger Rowse, a forthright Bostonian and parliamentarian par excellence. Deep plots were hatched under her aegis both at the Alliance and at the Wednesday Club, another ladies’ organization to which they all belonged. Winter evenings were sometimes spent in telephonic conspiracy, sometimes in painting oilcloth bibs for the Church Bazaar; and Mother’s boredom was great when reorders came in for three ducks chasing each other across the bib-bottom instead of the more venturesome patterns she preferred.
The annual fall excitement was the cook-up in the church kitchen preparing jellies and “Senfgurken.” When pickling cucumbers began to turn yellow, the day would be set. Since cars were still rather scarce, ever-practical Mother arranged to have the grocer pick her up on his way to making his important delivery. Little did she foresee that the noon editions of the newspapers would one cook-up day carry a hilarious story about her and the cucumbers scattered all over Kings highway in a fortunately otherwise harmless accident.
Why was Mother qualified to teach a cooking class? All through her life—and, as I have found, all through mine—the most unlikely enthusiasms, the most far-fetched experiences, have, after long dormancy, suddenly burst into applicable aptitudes. It is true that a few of Mother’s culinary beginnings were on the conventional side. One such was the casual introduction during her formative years to a varied European cuisine. And this acquaintanceship formed a subliminal foundation of sorts when she attended a series of seasonal cooking sessions presided over by a Mrs. Ray Johnson of Paris, Kentucky, who spent her summers, as did our family, in Bay View, Michigan. The date must have been around 1915. The Johnson “School” was perhaps Mother’s only exposure to formal culinary training. But it brought out in her an unusual and at first rather inexplicable flair for decorating cakes.
These were not the stiff, massive structures of harsh-colored icing that in those days took pride of place in bakery windows—as much occupational symbols as the cigar-store Indian or the pharmacist’s colored jars—but masterpieces of delicate sugar frosting with garlands of wild roses cascading over the sides and graceful arches of lilies of the valley or forget-me-nots accenting the recipient’s name.
Mother’s skill in floral confection can, in retrospect, be traced back to a lifelong love of gardening. As a child, traveling abroad, she caused something of a family stir by starting hyacinth bulbs under her bed. As an adult, in city cinders and clay or Michigan sand, she managed to coax along an astonishing diversity of plants. Peripheral, too, in this connection, but contributing toward a lively appreciation of how, at least, to present food attractively were her several years of study, just before the turn of the century, at the Washington University Art School. For that matter, there can be little doubt that the dominant role Mother subsequently played in many civic organizations equipped her with the initiative and careful coordination she would need later still to put across her special expertness to what became her “public.”
Mother’s early housekeeping days, after her marriage to Edgar Rombauer in 1898, gave little evidence of culinary prowess. “Will it encourage you,” she asked in one of Joy‘s prefaces, “to know that I was once as ignorant, helpless and awkward a bride as was ever foisted on an impecunious young lawyer? Together we placed many a burnt offering upon the altar of matrimony.” The “togetherness” she refers to may, in fact, have pulled many a burnt offering out of the fire; for the “young lawyer,” during his bachelorhood, had with the Judge, his father, spent a couple of summers lightheartedly prospecting for gold in Colorado, and brought with him to the blessed state the rough competence of a camp-fire cook.
Indeed, it is an open secret that Mother, to the very end of her life, regarded social intercourse as more important than food. The dinner table, in our childhood, frequently suggested a lectern rather than a buffet. What I remember better than the dishes it upheld—which, I must admit, constantly improved in quality—was the talk which went ’round it, talk which burst forth out of our richly multiple interests. Among Father’s was the Urban League, of which he seemed perennial president, and whose work was important then, as now, because of southern in-migration. Another was his participation in reform government. It led to tenure—brief as the life of the reform itself—as Speaker of the St. Louis House of Delegates. As a gesture of compensation for the time he spent at City Hall, Father turned his token salary as Speaker over to Mother.
In later years there were other gay musical gatherings at Mother’s, especially while she served on the board of the St. Louis Symphony. Some of these occurred in seasons during which the podium was occupied by a series of guest conductors. Most of these visitors were European. Virtually all had few close friends in the city, were not averse to an informal home-cooked meal, and enjoyed a quiet encounter with sympathetic people who could in some instances literally speak their language—or, rather, one of their languages. This pleasant contingency brought us, among others, Georg Szell, Molinari, and the Arboses, with their great friend Alfred Cortot. Cortot especially delighted the company with his parodies of nineteenth-century bravura pieces, executed with the dramatic help of a large navel orange, which he rolled sonorously over the keyboard.
By 1929 my brother had left home and I was planning to be married and live away, too. My father’s death in early 1930 left Mother, ten years his junior, with the realization that she would soon be entirely without the companionship of an immediate family. My brother and I had often urged her to put into systematic order the underlying directives of a personal cuisine which had long since excited far more than a neighborhood appreciation. It was at this juncture, partly to comply, chiefly to distract her keen unhappiness, that she decided to spend another summer in Michigan, taking with her, needless to say, the mimeographed sheaf of recipes she had compiled, some eight years before, for the Women’s Alliance. She knew she needed salvation in work, and that to work she must manage to avoid people, much as she loved and attracted them. And so, on this very different kind of Michigan trip, she went not to Bay View, which she never again revisited, but to a small inn near Charlevoix, where she was a complete stranger. She had no inkling, of course, that she was carrying with her into Johnny Appleseed country an acorn of even more promising potential, or what world-wide companionship its growth would bring her, what years of absorbing activity.
On her return to St. Louis, Mother persuaded Charlie Maguire’s niece, my father’s former secretary and a friend to all of us, to help her by typing out and commenting critically on her expanding text. By the second summer I was in New York, where manuscript pages from St. Louis arrived regularly. After painting in the mornings, I tested recipes in the afternoon against the arrival of John, his sister and her fiance for dinner. The following winter, while I directed the art department at the John Burroughs School in St. Louis, I worked weekends on the chapter headings and the production of the book.
How naive and straightforward was our approach to publishing! We simply called in a printer. I remember the Saturday morning he arrived, laden with washable cover fabrics, type and paper samples. In a few hours all decisions were made, and shortly afterwards we signed a contract for 3,000 copies complete with mailing cartons and individualized stickers. Then came the new experience of galleys, proofreading and preparing an index. But peaceful country interludes were about to be exchanged for another intensive zeroing-in on a new edition. Every transformation of Joy means to its authors a “power and astonishment of work.” But preparing and putting together the edition of 1951 seemed, especially to the senior member of our pair, intolerably irksome. When the last galley had been corrected she told me she felt like the wan and emaciated angel Ginnie Hofmann sent us along with her final drawing. Indeed, after some reflection, she announced that she was, like Ginnie and her winged messenger, “finished” —reluctantly, but for good. She had planted the acorn and performed a stupendous and winning job of cultivation. The sapling she nurtured had grown to a tree of broad caliper, and she was at last ready to rest in its grateful shade.
One day, while Mother was lecturing in Columbus, a woman rushed up to the platform and breathlessly asked “Have you ever thought of writing the story of your life?”, to which she replied, simply, “No, why should I?” The rejoinder may have satisfied the inquisitive stranger, but it didn’t satisfy me. When Mother withdrew from active collaboration on Joy, I approached her for a second time to suggest that she write a book. This time my plea failed, although I discovered in Mother’s papers after her death a tiny fragmentary start. How I wish she had kept on! It has fallen to me to sketch Mother’s life as I saw it.
I come to the end of this random narrative, without having in the least succeeded in distilling from it a formula for assembling a world-famous cookbook. Whoever first put together the triad “food, clothing, and shelter” gave the first an impressive priority. Can we infer that just as war is too important to be left to the generals, so cookbook writing is too important to be left to the cooks?
The minutes of the First Unitarian Women’s Alliance are misplaced and the memories of its surviving members somewhat hazy about just when between 1922 and 1924 Irma Rombauer got together a sheaf of seventy-three mimeographed recipes as a foundation for their cooking course.
Mother was over fifty when we persuaded her to compile a more comprehensive cookbook. Privately printed in 1931, the 3,000 copies could boast 500 tested recipes from which “inexperienced cooks cannot fail to make successful souffles, pies, cakes, soups, gravies, if they follow the clear instructions given on these subjects. The Zeitgeist is reflected in the chapter on Leftovers and in many practical suggestions.” The Zeitgeist, now so painful to recall, was the Great Depression.
Mother’s friends made sales lively, but not brisk enough to suit her. A pilgrimage to consult Mr. Kroch, of Kroch’s International Bookstore, Chicago, brought forth his startled comment: “Two thousand copies privately sold in two years, woman—and you come to me?” Meanwhile the manuscript of an enlarged Joy was making the rounds. It came to rest, as it happened, in Indianapolis. While playing bridge at her cousin Ina’s, Mother met Lawrence Chambers, President of Bobbs-Merrill, who agreed to look over her text, largely because he had always enjoyed Ina’s elegant cuisine. Publication—full-fledged, authentic publication, this time—followed in 1936.
The 1936 introduction to Joy took an expansionist tone: “Although I have been modernized by life and my children, my roots are Victorian. This book reflects my life. It was once merely a private record of what the family wanted, of what friends recommended and of dishes made familiar by foreign travel and given an acceptable Americanization. In the course of time there have been added to the rather weighty stand-bye of my youth the ever-increasing lighter culinary touches of the day. So the record, which to begin with was a collection such as every kitchen-minded woman possesses, has grown in breadth and bulk until it now covers a wide range.”
-Abridged from Little Acorn: The Story Behind the Joy of Cooking 1931-1966 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966).
An American Institution
by Molly Finn
The Joy of Cooking is an American institution. It was the only cookbook chosen by the New York Public Library during its centennial celebration in 1995 as one of the 150 most influential books of the century. Since it was first published in 1931 it has provided encouragement, information, and remedies for kitchen emergencies to countless uncertain brides, college students, experienced cooks, innocents, and snobs. With its excellent index and well–tested recipes, it has been the reference book of choice for those interested in traditional American food.
The best thing about The Joy of Cooking, however, is the voice of its author, Irma Rombauer. She engages in a constant dialogue with her readers, telling stories about herself and her family, sprinkling the text with genuine witticisms and excruciatingly corny puns, and making sure everybody knows that cooking is not an occult science or esoteric art, but part of the everyday work of the vast majority of women (and a few men) that can be turned into fun with her help.
The Joy of Cooking has always been a family enterprise, and through all the revisions of the work as it changed and expanded from 1931 through 1975 it has been recognizable as essentially the same book. In 1951, for the third revision, Irma’s daughter Marion Becker joined her mother as coauthor, and after Irma’s death in 1962 Marion continued as author through the book’s fifth revision, published in 1975 shortly after Marion’s death. That edition sold about 100,000 copies per year between 1975 and 1997, by which time fourteen million copies of Joy had been sold.
– From “2001 First Things 101”
Local Unitarian women’s auxiliaries united to form the National Alliance of Unitarian and Other Christian Women in 1890. Unitarian and Universalist women united in 1963 to consolidate as the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation.
- Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America The Joy of Cooking by Ann Mendelson (New York: Henry Holt, 1996).
- Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer (New York: Scribner, 2006).
- Notable American Unitarians 1936-1961 edited by Herbert Vetter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Square Library, 2007).
Click here to view supplemental reading about Irma Rombauer on Amazon.