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Peggy Keener: The Joylessness of Cooking

In 1930, Irma Rombauer, a St. Louis socialite, found herself an instant widow when her despondent husband committed suicide. In her panic to support her family, she turned to food, laboring for the next year at compiling a collection of her family’s best recipes.

Her plan was to sell them. To her friends, however, the entire venture appeared nonsensical, because the truth was that Irma wasn’t much of a cook. But, ignoring them, the irascible Irma nonetheless forged ahead by hiring a publisher to print 3,000 copies of her booklet.

To everyone’s surprise Irma would soon prove her friends wrong. She, the complete amateur with virtually no professional credentials, turned herself into a competent businesswoman. Her secret was knowing that neophyte cooks learned faster when they cooked with a friend. And with that single nugget of know-how, the small, chic, witty, and immensely forceful Irma appointed herself as that friend!

In the beginning the booklet was sold out of Irma’s apartment. She never stopped planning ahead, though, and soon was rethinking the art of recipe writing. What she came up with was the novel idea of working the ingredients into the writing of the recipes, a method we currently know as the “action method.” In 1936, her collection of reformulated recipes was published in this new style. Unfortunately, it was only a modest success.

Still, the determined cooking charlatan soldiered on, claiming her goal was not to show people how they should cook, but rather to show them how she cooked, stressing what joy she got out of it. She certainly had me fooled for I became one of her groupies when, in 1958 I received “The Joy of Cooking” as a wedding gift. Sixty years later, I still have it. If I stuck it in boiling water, it would become instant soup stock for the pages are so saturated with lumpy food splatters.

You must keep in mind that when “Joy” was first published, cooking was different. Chicken was expensive and veal was cheap. Knives were scoured with lemon juice to keep the blades from staining, frozen foods were what was left out on a Minnesota December doorstep, milk was not homogenized and the refrigerator was an icebox. Egg whites and whipped cream were made with a rotary hand beater (oh, how I remember being that hand beater for my mom!), purees were made by forcing the food through a sieve with a wooden spoon, and such things as aluminum foil, plastic bags, paper towels and plastic wrap were not even a distant whimsy.

Irma, in the meantime, chugged on. One unusual and altruistic feature of her book was that she embraced a variety of cultural recipes. She also included old-fashioned dishes cooked from scratch, as well as up-to-the-minute shortcuts using canned soups and condensed milk, both of which contained processed ingredients. Some housewives looked favorably upon these short cuts as modern miracles, while others looked down on them as inferior substitutes for the real thing.

But Irma was not about elegance and authenticity, and most of all she did not separate herself from her fans. As a result, she created a cozy human bond on her pages in which the readers felt they were pals rather than pupils. To them, Irma became a real person. To add even more to the down-home warmth of her cookbook, Irma interjected jewels from her favorite comic strips as well as quotes from writers like Mark Twain: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whiskey is barely enough.”

The next incarnation of “Joy” came out in 1943. It was wartime. The book incorporated the use of pressure cookers along with nutritional information and the new voguish trend of adding herbs and seasonings. It also included recipes that provided substitutes such as soybeans for rationed wartime foods. Fashionable dishes like Beef Stroganoff, vichyssoise and guacamole were also added, all presented in a voice that felt like one friend chatting with another over the back fence. Irma extolled to anyone who would listen that her most effective  wartime weapon was her cooking spoon. In displaying her flag-waving, public spirited efforts, she made “Joy” not only patriotic, but finally a nationwide bestseller.

In time, daughter Marion was brought in as a collaborator on the book. She was well qualified with surprisingly accomplished artistic and cooking skills. But, here’s where the true story emerges. The deception was that even with all its successes, the book did not radiate joy between mother and daughter. It seems that along the way, Irma’s redeeming qualities had become twisted. They were now blatantly cruel. In truth, Mom was a mean-spirited tyrant who used Marion’s plain looks and practical fashion taste as the butt of frequent barbs.

Even-tempered Marion never retaliated, though, even when in later years her mother, then suffering from cancer, continued to unmercifully berate her. Thus, for the two of them—and unbeknownst to us followers—the joylessness of cooking was their bitter reality.

I was saddened to learn about this bogus happiness for I, who have always been a believer in goodness, habitually felt a genuine tranquility and pleasure whenever I cooked with “Joy.” How dismaying it was to learn of the creators’ rancorous acrimony.

And just what does “joy” mean, anyway?  It makes me question whether or not I’m truly happy when I wash my dishes in Joy soap suds or if I’m genuinely elated when that first bite of Almond Joy dissolves in my mouth. Oh, Irma, you have forevermore tainted that word for me.