Friday, November 03, 2006


First an apology for my long hiatus. I got a new job, and just had a baby, so I was a little preoccupied. But now that I’m on maternity leave for three months, and have very little to do while feeding a new baby but think about food, I’m back.

And today’s topic is the new Joy of Cooking that’s come out. I just read the New York Times review of it, and the reaction was lukewarm at best. Yeah, me too. But I’ve always felt this way about Joy of Cooking. They didn’t have to revise it to make me think differently about it.

Brief history of Joy for those who care: Irma Rombauer evidently put together the first edition in the 1930s as a way of coping with her husband’s suicide. Since then, it’s become a family affair, with her daughter, and grandson getting in on the “family business” as it was expanded and updated. I once read something that compared followers of JOC to wine connoisseurs, with various factions having their favorite “vintages.” Some are devoted to the edition published in the 1940s, others to the updated edition from the 1970s. It was reworked again in 1997, and is now being reissued for a 75th anniversary celebration (along with—ta da!—a line of cooking utensils…more caustic words on that topic another time).

In 1997, the overwhelming reaction from the cookbook world to the overhaul was “This stinks.” Too many things had been removed for the devoted masses (although I kind of wonder just how many of those devoted masses really used the sections on canning and freezing foods). The masses also felt that Mrs. Rombauer’s conversational tone was overwhelmed. The 1975 edition remains the favorite, according to the New York Times article.

That’s the one I believe we have. Correction: that my husband has. I refuse to admit ownership to JOC. It’s on our bookshelf, but if the topic comes up in conversation, I point out that it belongs to my husband, not to me. Better Homes & Gardens? Mine. James Beard anything? Mine. Mastering the Art of French Cooking (vols. I and II). Mine. Fannie Farmer? Mine. Joy? HIS.

Why this prejudice against something so basic? you may ask. Why this choleric attitude toward a mere cookbook? Simple answer: because I find it to be vastly user-unfriendly, and thus resent the iconic status it has in our society above other, more deserving works. It’s the same feeling that celebrity watchers have (I suppose) when an actor or actress who has, to their mind, minimal talent and appeal seems to be grabbing attention away from those more deserving. Maybe to me, Joy of Cooking is the Paris Hilton of cookbooks.

The format of recipes is my primary objection to JOC. Most cookbooks follow a format of listing ingredients at the top of the recipe. They’re generally listed in the order in which they’re used, and described by what needs to be done to them (e.g. 1 cup flour, sifted). Joy uses what I suppose could be perceived as a more conversational format, but I find it very difficult to use. Instead of listing ingredients out, the ingredients are part of the recipe instructions. Thus you get something that resembles this:


1 cup flour, sifted


1 tsp salt

Stir to combine. Then add

1 large egg, lightly beaten and
1 cup cold milk

Stir until mixture is barely combined. Then add

1 tsp finely chopped orange zest…”

I find this maddening. In order to recognize that I need to sift a cup of flour, measure out the salt and milk, have a lightly beaten egg ready to add to the mixture, and prep a teaspoon of orange zest, I have to read through the whole recipe and pick things out. It’s not a recipe, it’s a cookbook version of those word puzzle books you buy in drugstores that have you find words in a jumble of letters.

I’m all for the instruction of reading a recipe through and understanding what needs to be done prior to beginning, but to have to read through it and concentrate once on the ingredients, then read through it again and concentrate once on the order of ingredient combination and equipment, then read through it AGAIN to concentrate on technique seems to me a colossal waste of time.

When I go through a recipe the first time, I’m generally checking for sequence—when this gets added, what things might be combined separately and then added later. Then I run through it and make sure I understand what kinds of bowls, spoons, and cooking equipment I’ll need, and also what I’m doing to the various ingredients. OK so I know I’m separating eggs (two bowls), but are the whites then being beaten stiff and added to a mixture at a later time? Great, hand mixer is ready, etc. I prefer the ingredients all at the top of the recipe so when I see to add the dried sage, it’s not a surprise. Dried sage—yep, knew I needed it.

I really have no beef with Joy’s content. I’m sure it’s just as much a combination of useful basics and slightly out there “differentiator” recipes as any of the other “icon” cookbooks. My issue of Fannie Farmer will tell you how to make basic things like chicken stock or bread, but also offers preparations for pork chops and ground beef that pretend that anyone actually uses it to make dinner for their families. That’s the thing about the icon cookbooks—they would like to believe that people plan meals out of them, but they’re kidding themselves. You turn to them for recipes for white sauce and how long to roast a chicken. You don’t actually use their tuna noodle casserole recipe to make dinner. Evidently this new Joy has a section of “Joy Classics” from the older editions that include something called Shrimp Wiggle, which sounds like a real winner—shrimp in white sauce with peas served over toast. Welcome to 1952. Hurry up and wash your hands, Beaver; supper is ready and it’s Shrimp Wiggle. Gee, Mom.

But Joy’s recipe format is enough to drive me away from it for any use at all (that Shrimp Wiggle thing doesn’t exactly add to the appeal either, I must say). Every Christmas my husband makes peanut butter cookies out of Joy, and I can’t see how he manages it. It’s all choppy—you have to read each recipe 5 times to extract every morsel of information you need. It’s too labor-intensive for me.

So now we have a new version of Joy. I’ll probably flip through it at the bookstore, but you’ll still find the 1975 edition on my bookshelf, and I’ll continue to point out to anyone who might ask that it’s HIS. He brought it to the marriage, and if we should ever part (we won’t), it’ll go with him. Until then I’ll tolerate it on my bookshelf, but I don’t have to like it.


Bob H said...

I just read some of your comments about beginner cookbooks and your negative thoughts of the Joy of Cooking and deem it necessary to throw my 2 cents worth into the mix.

If the question concerning beginner cookbooks was reworded to ask, "I have no idea what I am doing in the kitchen and need a good introductory cookbook. What is a good choice?", then I would highly recommend Joy Of Cooking (1975). JOC is truly a cookbook for beginners who need a complete introduction into the world of cooking and/or baking.

In the early 70's I was a newcomer to the cooking world and had had my fill of heavy, concentrated reading during my recently completed college career and was interested in lighter fare. JOC will teach one the basics of cooking if it is treated as a book, rather than a reference guide. Ignore the recipes and concentrate on the "About" sections (such as "About Shrimp") to learn terminology, techniques and essential information particular to the ingredient.

"About Beef" provides the reader info regarding cuts of beef, the types of cooking (roasting, braising, sautéing, etc.) that best suit them, and a whole myriad of other information a true beginner would find beneficial. In the past 30+ years I’ve become quite a good and creative cook (as I’ve been told) and found that really reading JOC has been a contributing factor in this development. I still frequently refer to JOC when I need to refresh my knowledge about certain foods.

I found JOC (1975) to be a very useful cookbook though, over the years, I’ve found many cookbooks that contain much more elegant recipes. My collection of cookbooks has grown steadily over the years, now numbering about 130. From Julia (Mastering the Art of French Cooking, The Way To Cook) to Pierre Franey, Craig Claiborne and a whole litany of acclaimed cookbook authors I honestly believe that JOC is by far the outstanding intro to cooking that provides the cook the basic knowledge required to prepare the wonderful recipes contained within all of those books. JOC certainly provided me the info that allows me to confidently alter existing recipes to create a whole new dynamic.

Almost anyone can open a cookbook and follow a particular recipe to put a very good meal on the table, yet not everyone can deviate from the recipe without knowing what works with what. JOC provides just such insight if it is used in its entirety as opposed to merely being a warehouse of recipes.

Those who are comfortable (and accomplished) in the kitchen who do not own JOC would most likely find it less valuable to them than it is to kitchen neophytes. I strongly recommend JOC to family and friends just finding their ways into the kitchen as a means of understanding the kitchen and food. If used properly, the foundation JOC creates will last a lifetime and the cooking “rookie” will one day become a “seasoned veteran”.

Just my thoughts, based upon my experience. Bon Appetit.

TD said...


Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think what I find a little unfriendly about JOC (and we have the same 1975 edition), is that it's somewhat clinical. Do this, add this, stir in this, the end. One of the things I love about James Beard and Julia Child are that they then go on to say " will look like/feel like this..." and give you some cues that tell you you've done it right. I like that little pat on the back, that reassurance, that "yep, you got it, kiddo!"

I do agree that the "About" sections can be quite helpful. We can all use a refresher on certain subjects from time to time.

Perhaps my opinions are colored by the fact that I've been cooking for so long and JOC didn't come into my life until I was pretty comfortable in the kitchen. When I was just starting out, I had my trusty copy of James Beard's Theory and Practice of Good Cooking by my side.

I think there may be a phenomenon with "starter" cookbooks which I have also experienced with things like Chinese food and pizza--what we're exposed to first lays a foundation for future expectations I know I personally have never had pizza that was quite as good as the pizza my parents ordered every Saturday night when I was a kid from the Chik'n' Bucket (don't ask!) near our house. Maybe it's the same with "basic" cookbooks. You never get over that first one. :)