I’ve picked up and set down the cookbook The Joy of Cooking (JoC) by Irma S. Rombauer many times. Why? I was on the hunt for a copy someone used, loved, and cooked from. I wanted to see a few splattered pages and maybe notes jotted in the sidebar.
That didn’t happen.
But, while rummaging through the “bins” of Goodwill in St. Louis, I found one — a 1943 copy of The Joy of Cooking.
While my life wasn’t forever changed, I understand why some people consider certain versions a great resource for classic recipes.
What Is The Joy of Cooking?
The Joy of Cooking is a cookbook compiled by Irma S. Rombauer (October 30, 1877 – October 14, 1962). Published in 1931, The Joy of Cooking: A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat became a go-to resource for a variety of dishes.
Many revisions and editions later, The Joy of Cooking remains relevant and popular. You’ll find it in many an American kitchen — and beyond.
Who is Irma S. Rombauer?
Let’s head to St. Louis, Missouri, an interesting, diverse, and unique Midwestern city. St. Louis was the home of the von Starkloff family, a German family who lived in the German part of town. Irma lived with her parents and a sister. She briefly dated Newton Booth Tarkington and had an education befitting the period. In other words, it was with her place in society in mind and not so much a career.
If you haven’t visited St. Louis before, it’s an unusual city because each neighborhood has a different feel to it (for the most part). If you are in Soulard, the first established neighborhood of St. Louis, for example, you’ll discover French-influenced 19th-century architecture.
Walk through the Compton Heights neighborhood. The big, beautiful homes point to 1880s to 1890s construction. You get the idea.
These aren’t locally-used names, either. The neighborhoods plaster their name on signs and paint them over crosswalks. There are 79 neighborhoods in total, according to the City of St. Louis. But on my trip to St. Louis, the Shaw neighborhood was the one I didn’t want to miss — it was the home of Irma S. Rombauer.
Irma S. Rombauer was a woman who not only wrote The Joy of Cooking, but also self-published the first edition of her 135-page cookbook for $3,000. She was self-publishing before it was hip.
If only I’d realized it sooner, I would have tried to seek out the rest of their former family homes.
Why Did Irma S. Rombauer Write The Joy of Cooking?
Irma wasn’t even a cook.
She had a cook, but she didn’t do the cooking. Her brother Max’s household said it was the “Worst idea I ever heard,” and “Irma’s a TERRIBLE cook,” as shared in Mendelson’s book (page 84, from an interview with Patrician Egan in March 1987).
The idea of Irma S. Rombauer writing a cookbook wasn’t the best in the eyes of her friends and family.
Now, let’s see what Marion, Irma’s daughter, had to say about the creation of JoC.
Go back a little more for something closer to the truth:
But that’s not the whole truth. It wasn’t only a “period of loneliness.” It was grief.
What Was the Real Reason Irma Wrote The Joy of Cooking?
Edgar Rombauer pursued Irma for a year before proposing marriage. He once told their kids (Marion and Put) what drew him to Irma. The man who described “her beauty, her vivaciousness, and her frankness” and “essentially sunny” disposition, according to Mendelson in “Stand Facing the Stove” (page 39), killed himself and left her with little way to support herself.
On Monday, February 3, 1930, Irma left to go shopping in downtown St. Louis. Edgar loaded one barrel of a Purdey double-barrel shotgun, sat in a chair by an open window, tied a string around his right foot, tied the other end to the trigger, and ended his life.
Although the housekeeper heard the sound, she shrugged it off as a car backfiring. The downstairs neighbors rang when they saw dripping blood from the ceiling.
It wasn’t Edgar’s first bout of depression. He had long had depressive episodes, withdrawing from the world, unable to work or join in the usual social activities of his day. As weeks or months passed, he’d sit in his room and complete crossword puzzles or scrapbooks of world events as family life carried on in the background.
Edgar’s bouts of extreme energy, followed by anxiety and withdrawal, point to manic depression, suggested Mendelson (page 38).
With $6,000 in her bank account, Irma S. Rombauer had to do something.
But what could a woman with few marketable skills and a certain societal position do to help make ends meet? Not much. So, why not compile a cookbook? Irma was one of many women of her time (and status) to try her hand at cookbook writing.
Irma Starts Putting Together The Joy of Cooking
Irma sourced her recipes in St. Louis and beyond. The granddaughter of one such source remembered the following:
It’s a great story, isn’t it? Marion, however, expressed embarrassment over her mother’s unbridled enthusiasm, writing, “Mother’s hobby is beginning to embarrass me, she carries it to such lengths,” Mendelson’s book shared.
It was a basic cookbook with nutritional suggestions and a unique approach to listing recipes. Irma tried something different — and that experiment paid off.
That usability is what made Joy great. From beginning to end — including the index, this book considered its audience.
I think we’ve all experienced the frustration of a shoddy index. That’s not the case with The Joy of Cooking. In fact, it’s something JoC has long prided itself on, thanks to the work of Mary Whyte Hartrich.
Who Was Mary Whyte Hartrich?
Who was Mary and how did she get roped into helping out with the cookbook?
It was, and is, a family affair.
Is The Joy of Cooking Considered a Good Cookbook?
You either love it or you hate it. Strong opinions accompany mentions of this cookbook in all corners of the internet.
What do I think? I get why it’s a staple in so many kitchens. There’s a smattering of this and a sprinkle of that. The staples are here. But — it’s fun to flip through. Vintage copies contain unique recipes you’ll chuckle over.
What Recipes in The Joy of Cooking Were the Authors’ Favorites?
Write a cookbook and I am guessing it’s guaranteed every interviewer and reader will ask for your favorites. I assume it’s not much different than when interviewers used to ask about my favorite small town.
As you may recall, Nell B. Nichols of Farm Journal cookbooks responded to a question from her granddaughter with a “well, all of them!”
I understand that sentiment. If you’re editing a cookbook, you’re only including your favorites. But there are favorite, favorites too, right? In regards to my small town rambles, I’d respond, “It depends what you’re looking for.” Food-wise?
Well, I love my brownie recipes (or I wouldn’t share them with you), but I love my cakey and frosting-covered brownie recipe just a little bit more.
What did Irma enjoy doing the most? Her great-grandson John Becker shared that according to his father, Irma’s favorite things to make by far were cookies and cake. Here’s what John had to say about the family’s favorite Joy of Cooking recipes:
Baking cookies and cake? I think we’d get along great.
What Did Reddit Users Cite As Their Favorite Recipes?
If you’re unfamiliar with The Joy of Cooking cookbook, it might help to get an idea of the types of recipes other people consider their favorites. I combed over Reddit posts (and went off on more than one side quest). From banana bread Cockaigne to Irma’s chocolate chip cookies,
But the result is a diverse list of favorite Joy of Cooking reliable recipes.
- The Joy of Cooking Brownies
- Pancakes (and Lemon Pancakes)
- Basil Pesto
- Rich Roll Cookies
- Red Pepper Pasta Sauce
- Sour Cream Muffins
- Butter Cookies
- Sweet and Sour Pork
- hunters chicken / chicken cacciatore (the one with white wine and mushrooms)
- Cottage Pie/Shepard’s Pie
- Pasta with Egg & Bacon
- Paprika Chicken
- Coq au vin
- Banana Bread
- Ginger Cake (housewarming 1973)
- Split Pea Soup
- Pecan Pie
- Cloverleaf Rolls
- Chocolate Chip Cookies
Yes, you have your work cut out for you. Pick a recipe. Any recipe. Then get cookin’. Don’t forget to write in your cookbook. List your thoughts, your tweaks, and substitutions.
What Joy of Cooking Edition is Right for You?
There are eight editions that mark genuine stages of the books history, according to Mendelson (xiii preface). These include:
- the original privately-published book (1931)
- the first Bobbs-Merrill edition (1936)
- the best-selling wartime edition (1943)
- the first post-war edition printed from the 1943 plates with minimal changes (1946)
- the first Rombauer-Becker edition (1951)
- the first unauthorized edition (1962)
- the first authorized edition prepared by Marion Becker (1963)
- Marion’s last edition (1975)
Don’t feel overwhelmed by the number of recipes. That’s part of the fun.
Marion took a different track than her mother, Irma. Marion enjoyed nutrition. After decades of dealing with undiagnosed food allergies, Marion found the concept of nutrition intriguing and reflected this interested in her JoC versions.
That’s not all. Marion later had help from her husband, John.
It began as a self-published work, a way to hopefully earn a little money, and turned into something far more.
Then there’s Marion Rombauer Becker’s last edited book.
The 1997 version, however, is often listed among the least popular versions of the cookbook.
It isn’t as though they changed every recipe. Around 50 recipes were changed. But in the eyes of many … it lost a certain something-something.
As a former Midwesterner, I can say it’s true — we are big on charm. To cut it out … well, it’s what makes JoC, JoC. Luckily, this cookbook did not end with the 1997 version.
In 2019, Irma S. Rombauer’s great-grandson, John Becker, and his wife, Megan Scott, published an edition of Joy of Cooking, adding over 600 new dishes alongside deep-rooted favorites.
Think about it though. You have a deadline. You also have a lot of recipes ahead of you. How do you decide what stays and what goes in a book people have Very Strong Opinions About?
This time, the family testers were careful about what stayed in the cookbook — and what was safe to remove.
Expect to see your old favorites and 600 new recipes reflecting the way people cook today.
Do You Want a Copy of The Joy of Cooking with the Squirrel?
Of course, there is one other factor to consider when choosing your Joy of Cooking cookbook: the Squirrel.
Look inside certain editions of JoC and you’ll discover quite the illustration. It’s the skinning process. Back in the late 1990s, my high school boyfriend reached into his basement fridge and thrust a frozen, skinned squirrel in my face. I am still grossed out by the mental image.
But, I can say the illustration of the process in JoC is far less traumatizing (thanks, Adam!). It’s one time I am glad the Rombauer family were against including images.
Squirrel? No squirrel? It’s one more decision to weigh when choosing which copy of JoC is the best fit for you.
Why Was The Joy of Cooking a Bestseller?
The books of the day weren’t always so big on personality (except for The Good Earth <3). Have you ever looked at books for kids back then? Not quite the same.
JoC hit the scene in 1931, two years into the Great Depression. What else happened in 1931?
It’s the year TWA Flight 599 crashes and kills University of Notre Dame head football coach Knute Rockne, the Empire State Building is dedicated in New York City, Al Capone is convicted of income tax evasion and sentenced to 11 years in prison, and the Star Spangled Banner became the national anthem.
The Good Earth is one of my favorite books of all time. Not only do I reread it often (as does my oldest son), but I own (and love) many of Pearl’s other books. But, it does have a certain feel to it. When you consider the rest of the books on that list, it’s true: they are of a different time.
Flip through cookbooks of the day and you notice one thing: they are not big on personality. They lean towards the technical and were not created with regular people in mind. Not always, mind you. But enough so that when a book like Irma’s hit the scene, the mix of useful recipes and delightful commentary set it apart.
Irma’s gung-ho promotion and lively personality didn’t hurt. Hand-delivered copies made their way into St. Louisans hands and appeared in local shops.
The Indescribable Joy of a Used Joy of Cooking
This find is the stuff dreams are made of:
Now, settle in for a heap of interesting commentary on real people’s JoC thoughts:
And here all my Joy of Cooking (not the 1943 one) book says, written on the inside cover, is a message from my Grandmother.
“If this book is in your house YOU STOLE IT”stabbytastical,
From The Kitchn readers:
5 March, 2013
My mom and I both have copies of the ’46 edition. When my mom was living in Algeria in the ’70s, she needed a cookbook whose recipes didn’t include any convenience items, so her mother sent it to her, and it’s the version I grew up with. I still use it all the time and find it full of useful tidbits. What other cookbook will show you how to butcher a squirrel?
I have my mom’s copy of the 1964 edition (although a 1972 printing). It has her notes, as well as mine. I love it both for the recipes I use (peanut butter cookies) and the ones I don’t (boudin noir, possum). I love it most of all because of the stains on so many pages from the early years of parents marriage.
The Kitchen Imp
5 March, 2013
5 March, 2013
I have two: 1963 and 1975. The former was a wedding gift in 1964; the latter came with the second husband. 🙂 Still use them as references. And for my coveted hazelnut “toffee,” actually JoC’s “Nut Crunch,” and the oh-so-delicious Vanilla Cream Caramels.
5 March, 2013
I cherish my mom’s 1975 copy. The binding is falling apart, so I don’t use it too much for reference anymore, but I always turn to it for certain recipes. It wouldn’t be Christmas without turning to the recipe for Rich Roll Cookies and seeing annotations in my mom’s handwriting. I also have the 7th edition (meh) and the 8th edition (my go-to for basic techniques, etc.)
6 March, 2013
I was given a 6th edition (1975) as a high school graduation gift and I have my mom’s 4th edition (1951) which she was given when she married. I cook from the 6th edition but when I want to pick up a cook book just to read, it’s always Joy from 1951!
That list may not help you narrow it down, but it does help you better understand the appeal of this vintage cookbook series.
Where Can You Buy The Joy of Cooking?
Everywhere. Anywhere. Nowhere.
It depends on what you want.
Are you looking for a first edition of The Joy of Cooking, the one Irma published on her own? You and me both. Also, good luck.
In the meantime, you can browse The Joy of Cooking versions for sale below:
Joy of Cooking (1951) by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker (
Joy of Cooking (1952) by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker (