Let me paint a picture for you: I’m standing in a cramped kitchen with a dripping, raw chicken cradled in one hand and a giant knife in the other. I am about to cut up said chicken, when I realize that I actually have no clue what cutting up a chicken entails. “Somebody grab The Joy of Cooking,” I yell, growing frantic with the weight of the chicken in my hand. (Chickens, although small, are deceptively heavy, and I did start lifting weights after this incident).
The Joy of Cooking, my kitchen bible, is procured, and with reassurance, the voice of Irma Rombauer tells me, “With a little practice and a sharp knife, you can easily cut a whole chicken, duck, turkey, or goose into serving pieces.” Thanks, Irma.
First published in 1931 as a coping mechanism for dealing with her husband’s suicide, The Joy of Cooking was Irma Rombauer’s first foray into helping cooks everywhere keep their households happy. Joy was a departure from other era cookbooks written mostly by cooking schools or dieticians. “Talking about ridiculous cookbooks,” said M. F. K. Fisher about her generation’s offerings, “One, lavishly larded with instructive photographs, illustrates the correct way to serve dinner rolls, each tied with satin ribbon and a red, red rose!”
Instead of such impractical or hard to follow instructions, Rombauer offered recipes suited for day to day life and included basic instructions for commonly used cooking techniques. After hitting on the action method–working the ingredients list into the directions–she republished the book in 1936 with Bobbs-Merrill and began a family-run cookbook empire.
Joy has undergone a number of reprints since then–not all of them lauded. It has tried to move with changing attitudes toward food, substituting unrationed substances for costlier commodities during WWII, adapting to post-war appliances like freezers in the home, and expanding to include international recipes when it appeared that there was a demand for them. However, some of Joy‘s attempts at modernization were less well-received, like the 1997 version which eliminated the conversational tone of the instructions and removed the sections on ice cream preparation and home canning. Even the newest 2006 edition that I love so much has been criticized for use of ingredients like Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and what the New York Times calls, “a cloying coat of nostalgia.”
While not every recipe of the 4,500 included in the book is quality, what keeps bringing me back to The Joy of Cooking is the simply-expressed, yet encyclopedic range of knowledge contained between those thousand-odd pages. Joy assumes you have never cooked before in your life and walks you all the way from cleaning salad greens to making homemade marshmallows and smattering juicy tid-bits about everything you’ve ever wanted to know about what you eat in between.
Here’s one of my favorite recipes from The Joy of Cooking:
This dish is sometimes served as is, with bowls of garnishes such as grated cheese, shredded lettuce, guacamole, and chopped tomatoes on the side. It is also a tasty filling for tortillas–enchiladas, tacos, tostados–as well as a stuffing for chile peppers.
Cook in a large skillet, mashing down to crumble the meat, until the beef starts to brown:
1 pound ground beef
1 cup fresh chorizo
If a lot of fat is released, drain the meat on paper towels and return to the pan. Add:
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
Cook for a few minutes, then add:
1 cup chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
Pinch of sugar
Pinch of ground cloves
1 bay leaf
Simmer, covered for 30 minutes. Add:
½ cup raisins (I prefer golden raisins)
½ cup slivered blanched almonds
½ cup pitted black olives, chopped
Cook, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes. Remove bay leaf before serving. (I recommend this dish with warmed tortillas, lettuce, tomato, shredded cheddar cheese, and avocado.)