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Throwback Cookbook: Why the Joy of Cooking Still Rocks

Sweet Joy
Sweet Joy
Photos by Hannah Palmer Egan

Publishers love to send us cookbooks here at Fork in the Road, and often those books come straight from the chefs at some of New York's best restaurants. So we decided to share the love, and each week, we'll feature a new book, a recipe, and a few thoughts on cooking from the authors. Check back every Tuesday for a new book.

THROWBACK EDITION: Joy of Cooking By Irma S. Rombauer & Marion Rombauer Becker, 915 pages, Bobbs-Merrill Company (1975 ed.) Newer editions by Ethan Becker, from Scribner.

You may have this book on your shelves, and we'd be willing to bet that it's the ONLY cookbook on some of your shelves, which is great, because if you're only going to have one, this is the one to have. And if you haven't consulted it recently, it's time you dust it off.

This cookbook classic has been in print since 1936, but before that, Irma von Starkloff Rombauer, stricken with grief after her husband's suicide, self-published the original tome in 1931 and sold copies out of her apartment, determined to reframe instructional cookery in a chatty, accessible way.

There was a new edition (this time from a real publisher!) in 1936, and another in 1943, then 1946 and so on. As American food culture amoebically expanded and developed, the Joy incorporated new ingredients and cultural references, and when Rombauer passed away, her daughter Marion took over. When Marion passed away, her son Ethan took over. The latest edition, published in 2007, reflects three generations of work within the Rombauer-Becker family and 75 years of American culinary history.

Joy (1975 edition) was my first and only cookbook until I was 23. Later, my mom gave me a newer (1997) edition, which is also excellent, and I use them in tandem (THANKS, MOM). The new one has things like this incredible white bean soup that's been served in the U.S. Senate cafeteria for decades, but the old one has this dense "quick banana bread," leavened with baking powder, that I'd make as a teenager. That bread was nixed in the later update, replaced with another recipe that's surely better, but if we can't be sentimental about food, why eat?

There are dozens of reasons why this book is great, but for the sake of brevity, let's boil it down to six.  

Know thy Octopus
Know thy Octopus

Rombauer gives you instructions. At the head of every chapter, every section really, is an "about" bit. These inform the recipes and deepen the cook's general knowledge of cookery and how to handle ingredients effectively. In a few paragraphs, Rombauer distills years of kitchen know-how into accessible concepts anyone can put into practice.

For instance, thoughts on squid and octopus: "Both these inkfish belong emphatically to the large category of horrendous-looking sea creatures that must be eaten to be appreciated...Octopus is apt to be very tough if over 2-2 ½ pounds in weight. These and squid that are larger than eight inches after cleaning need tenderizing. Pound them mercilessly on a solid surface. To prepare fresh octopus for cooking, make sure first that your victim is dead-- by striking it a conclusive blow on the head..." She instructs on removing the inedible parts ("a beak-like mouth, the anal portion, and the eyes") and cautions cooks to take care with the ink sack, noting where it is and what it looks like, and writes that octopus must be cooked long and slow...

The illustrations are fabulous and helpful. I prefer these to the lush, full-bleed photos in today's cookbooks, which tend to give me an inferiority complex when my creations look nothing like the carefully-styled art pieces in the images. It's also printed regular, non-glossy paper, which allows you to take notes in the margins and splatter eggs and milk and dust it over with flour, completely guilt free.

Seriously, how cute are these mushrooms?

Throwback Cookbook: Why the Joy of Cooking Still Rocks

And aren't you just dying for a cocktail?!

Throwback Cookbook: Why the Joy of Cooking Still Rocks

The book is a pleasure to read. Rombauer was a fantastic writer, and there's effortless whimsy in her cadence.

It's also easy to follow. Recipes are laid out with step-by-step logic. It's not simply a list of ingredients followed by a list of steps, and by mixing steps and ingredients, Rombauer teaches you how to COOK, not just how to cook a particular dish. Rombauer had settled on this, the "action method," by the time the second edition came out in 1936. Check out a delicious example on page three of this post.

The index is navigable. Need a chicken recipe? Go to "chicken" in the index, it lists every recipe in the book involving chicken: soups and stocks, baked and broiled, grilled and gussied in every imaginable way. Prefer to think of it as "poultry?" Check poultry; it's helpfully cross-referenced. Most of today's books are so poorly indexed that finding something to do with whatever's in your fridge becomes a frustrating, flip-through-the book wild goose chase.

Creme everything, yes please.
Creme everything, yes please.

It's comprehensive. You could cook a whole meal, with cocktails and dessert, every day for a year from this book and rarely have to repeat. There are suggested menus at the front of the book for various occasions (breakfast, luncheons, dinner parties, picnics, backpacking trips, "participatory" meals), which take the guesswork out of planning dinner, but flipping through each section provides endless inspiration.

One of these nights, I'll throw a party and start with gimlets and gin-fizzes, flower canapes and filled edam, beef Wellington ("If time is no object and your aim is to out-Jones the Joneses," Rombauer quips en-recette) and blood sausage, custard pie and baked Alaska, then end it all with hot buttered rum or Brazilian hot chocolate. And we'll all die of a heart attack but we'll die happy and it'll all come from the Joy of Cooking.

Click to the next page for an easy recipe.  

Joyful crepes ala last night's dinner.
Joyful crepes ala last night's dinner.

There was a Superbowl on Sunday, but it was also national crepe day. We missed the memo, but better late than never so...

Here's is a fine, foolproof crepe recipe (20 minutes, start to finish), and one I've gotten many miles out of. The batter keeps overnight, so you can make extra at dinnertime, then cook them for breakfast, and you'll only have dirty one bowl.

I also like to use a bigger skillet than the five-inch pan the recipe calls for. Because size matters and I like my crepes around nine inches so I can load them up like burritos.

French Pancakes or Crepes Makes 4-16 5-inch cakes

Sift: ¾ c all-purpose flour

Re-sift with: ½ t salt 1 t double-acting baking powder 2 T powdered sugar ***

Beat: 2 eggs

Add and beat: ⅔ c milk ⅓ c water ½ t vanilla or ½ t grated lemon rind***

Make a well in the sifted ingredients. Pour in the liquid ingredients. Combine them with a few swift strokes. Ignore the lumps; they will take care of themselves. You may rest the batter refrigerator three to six hours. Heat a five inch skillet. Grease it with a few drops of oil. Add a small quantity of batter. Tip the skillet and let the batter spread over the bottom. Cook the pancake over moderate heat. When it is brown underneath, reverse it and brown the other side. Use a few drops of oil for each pancake. Spread the cake with: Jelly*** Roll it and sprinkle with: Confectioner's sugar***

Note: ***If making savory crepes, leave the sweet ingredients out.

I like to stuff mine with steamed broccoli and a quick bechamel, but if that's too fancy, ham and swiss (throw the ham in the skillet and melt the swiss on top and roll it into the crepe) is great, or eggs, or...Basically whatever's in the fridge. The ones in the photo are stuffed with leftover roast chicken and potatoes and braised beef and gravy from Friday's dinner party.

What is your favorite Joy of Cooking recipe? Please, share your thoughts in the comments!

Check out our Cookbook of the Week archives for more like this.

@findthathannah




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