The Joy of Cooking, 1964 edition, has been one of my most reliable food references for much of my life. If I want to bake cookies or a cake, it's the first place I usually look. I use it if I just want to know something about some ingredient (though these days, I am more likely to google). I'm pretty fond of ethnic cookbooks and of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but sometimes I need a simpler recipe -- my old battered, food-stained Joy of Cooking is where I go.
I was never terribly curious about Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, the authors. They never made a popular TV show like Julia Child. I never saw them in person in my local venues as I've seen Joan Nathan, or read their autobiography in the start of a book as I did Claudia Roden's. But I was enthusiastic when I bought Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America The Joy of Cooking by Anne Mendelson -- the selection for an upcoming discussion group.
The first hundred pages describe the life of Irma Rombauer up to 1931 when she wrote the first edition of the Joy of Cooking. She was then a recent widow in her mid-fifties. This part of the book was particularly fascinating as she was a native of St.Louis, as am I. Her family background thus appealed to me. I could picture many of the places mentioned, and learned quite a bit about 19th century St. Louis social history and the German immigrant background she came from. Most amazing: somewhat before her book became a big money-maker, Irma Rombauer moved to an apartment not far from my parents' first apartment. So for the first 8 years of my life, I learned, I lived about 2 blocks from her!
Mendelson's treatment of the origin of the Joy of Cooking and of its influence and importance includes much very interesting material. I enjoyed the stories of how Irma Rombauer collected recipes from friends and their cooks, edited the material, and with her daughter designed the innovative book. I was interested in how they invented its way of presenting recipes and information, and how Marion Becker re-invented much of the book for the later editions. Comparisons to other classic cookbooks of the era such as the Settlement Cookbook and Fanny Farmer are also enlightening. Mendelson covers many issues: social changes, decline of availability of household help, invention of better stoves and refrigeration, improvements in basic food products like seedless grapes, and development of convenience food like canned soup and Jello.
Unfortunately for a work whose topic is editing, cutting, shaping, and creating quality written material, much of the book itself is terribly undisciplined and badly in need of editing. I found too little of interest in the extensive treatment authors' enormous fights and lawsuits with their publisher about money and editing. The very sad later years of both women and Marion's husband -- their illnesses and family problems -- were perhaps also treated at too great length. Worst of all, a 50 page chapter "Chronicles of Cookery 2" has vast amounts of undigested observations, the history of cookbooks mingled with other social history, repetitions of Joy of Cooking background from other chapters, and gossip about American food history, and really doesn't come up to the standard of the rest of the book.
It's a very long book. It should have been shorter.