Out of desperation, Joy
Irma Rombauer was a desperate woman. As a result, America learned how to cook.
Irma Starkloff Rombauer of course gave us The Joy of Cooking, a cookbook that’s probably in your kitchen if I could hazard a guess. Most home cooks either bought or were given a copy at some point. In fact, more than 18 million copies (nine editions) have been sold since its first printing in 1931. And it all began because Irma’s husband, Edgar—after suffering with depression for years—committed suicide in 1930, about three months into The Great Depression.
With no husband and no job, Irma (then 52 years old) had about $6,000 in a savings account. So, she impulsively announced she would write a cookbook, which was quite a leap for a woman who liked dinner table conversation more than actually cooking the dinner.
There’s a comprehensive biography by Anne Mendelson, Stand Facing the Stove, that gives great detail on Irma and her daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker. I’m reading it now, and at 500 pages, I hope to finish it before I start collecting Social Security.
But like the detail in her cookbooks, the finer points of Irma’s life are notable.
For example, she was born in St. Louis, Missouri (Oct. 30, 1877). Her half-brother, Max Starkloff, wasa St. Louis Health Commissioner and introduced social distancing during the 1918 flu pandemic. A noteworthy factoid as St. Louis grapples with COVID-19. I’d bet Max would tell you to just wear a mask and physical distance, but I digress.
Because husband Edgar was an attorney, Irma became skilled as a hostess. While she could make lovely decorated cakes, she was only a competent cook. Still, Marion later would say her mother’s cooking skills were always improving.
I think because Irma possessed such strong social skills, it would be natural that her writing style would be approachable. In fact, another cookbook author, Molly Finn, once said the best part of Joy is the voice of its author. Early editions included personal stories, “Irmaisms” (witticisms), and puns, all to make cooking approachable. But what it really did was create a new “action format” for cookbooks.
I have a later printing of the 1975 edition of Joy. Honestly, I can’t remember how I got it; it was probably a shower gift. It is worn, stained, and well-loved. I feel oddly empowered when cooking from this book, like my mom or grandma are there coaching me. I also have my Grandma’s copy of Joy that looks to be from 1941 (sixth printing). The title page notes it is “a compilation of reliable recipes with a culinary chat.” The cover is hanging on with duct tape and the pages are yellowed with age, but some extra recipes in Grandma’s handwriting are still legible; it’s a true treasure.
Another notable thing is that Irma had become quite the national celebrity by the mid-1940s during an era without television, never mind no cable channels devoted to food. By the 1950s, she and daughter Marion were on world tours promoting the book. And this is all pre-Instagram, folks.
Irma died on Oct. 14, 1962 in St. Louis. She’s honored with a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame and received a Founder’s Day Award from Washington University, where she studied fine art in 1897. Her family members continue to protect and grow her Joy empire; her great grandson, John Becker, and his wife, Megan Scott, updated the ninth edition (2019).
I share with you this recipe from Grandma’s copy of Joy. It’s for German pancakes, something we often had for weekend breakfasts. I still make these for my breakfast. These are great for a brunch menu, too. Although it’s interesting that the recipe from Irma’s book makes just one 8-inch pancake. I wonder if, like so many women who have lost a spouse, she had to relearn how to cook for one.
Anyway, make this for breakfast this month and when you do, raise your fork to the little woman from St. Louis who taught America to cook.
(From The Joy of Cooking, 1941 sixth printing)
Makes one 8-inch pancake
3 tablespoons sifted flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 tablespoon sugar (optional)
6 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon butter
Resift the flour with sale and sugar. Beat eggs and add sifted ingredients.Slowly add milk, beating batter for 5 minutes.
In an 8-inch [oven-proof] skillet, melt the butter. Pour batter into hot skillet and place in oven at 425 degrees for 6 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for 15 minutes longer. Spread with powdered sugar or preserves. Sprinkle it with lemon juice.
[I also simply fry the pancake in the skillet. I've made the pancakes simply with 1 cup flour, 1 cup milk, 1 egg, a pinch of salt and sugar, 1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract. This recipe yields 4 dense pancakes.]