Who can say they knew Mark Twain? Or had a brief romance in her youth with Booth Tarkington while visiting her cousins, the literary Vonnegut’s, in Indianapolis? And who would write one of the best selling cookbooks of all time? This would be Irma S. Rombauer, a homemaker from St. Louis, Missouri, and seeking a way to support her family in 1931 after the death of her husband. She called her first, self-published book “The Joy of Cooking- A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat.” The first book, seen on the right below, was illustrated by Irma’s daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, which depicted St. Martha of Bethany, the patron saint of cooking, slaying a dragon with a broom and a cooking pot! Don’t you love it?!
The Joy of Cooking has been in print continuously since 1936 with over 18 million copies sold. The cookbook is one of the most remarkable culinary documents in any language. It has never rested on its laurels; it has been rethought and rewritten many times, and is the story of a family’s capacity for learning and building on what it has learned. When the book was first written and self published, Irma conducted a mail order business for the cookbook for four years from her St. Louis apartment. She had more plans for the book, when by chance, she happened to be playing bridge with Lawrence Chambers, then president of the Indianapolis publishing firm, Bobbs-Merrill. Irma was nothing if not persuasive, and by 1936, the fifty-nine year old author and her cookbook achieved a national audience. Daughter Marion, excited by her mother’s success, actively collaborated on plans for a revision. By the 1940’s, the cookbook was something of an American institution. By the 1950’s it was being discovered by the children of the first users. “Irma and Marion,” as they came to be known to generations of cooks, continued to revise and learn from their own book, and letters from fans. The Rombauer’s correspondence with their fans meant a constant education in what American women knew and did not know about cooking, which led to new ways of explaining and formatting recipes in revisions. This remarkable book introduced the country to exciting new ideas such as Chinese stir-frying (1951), and homemade sausages (1962). By 1951, Irma was seventy-four and ready to retire from active participation in the book, and a few years later she suffered a stroke that was to leave her helpless until her death in 1962. Marion died in 1977, leaving her work on the cookbook to her sons Mark, and Ethan. The 1975 version of the cookbook, which is the one seen above, was the last to be edited by Marion and remains the most popular. It’s more than 1,000 pages long and is still a staple in many home kitchens and used as a reference by many chefs. In 2006, a 75th Anniversary edition was published by Scribner, containing 4,500 recipes. It remains, and always will be, one of America’s most beloved cookbooks.
Irma and her daughter, Marion