When Irma S. Roumbacher became a widow at the age of 52, her children encouraged her to compile her recipes as a way of coping with her loss. Irma eventually self-published her collection of over 500 recipes, “The Joy of Cooking: A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat,” in 1931 and since then it has become the most popular cookbook ever published, selling more than 18 million copies.
“The Joy of Cooking” has gone through several iterations, with updated editions written by her daughter Marion, and subsequently her grandson, Ethan. It is a towering family legacy to live up to, but John Becker, the great-grandson of Irma Roumbacher, and his wife Megan Scott, have taken on the daunting task of updating this beloved kitchen classic. Becker and Scott will be giving the closing address at the Savannah Book Festival where they will discuss the challenges and thrills of creating the latest edition of “Joy of Cooking.”
Becker didn’t originally intend to get into the family business. He had earned a degree in English and helped publish collections of essays. Scott, on the other hand, studied the culinary arts through her farming family before becoming a cheese maker’s apprentice, baker, and an assistant pastry chef. The couple met when Scott found out that the barista (Becker) at a coffeeshop down the street was related to Irma Roumbacher. She introduced herself, they fell in love, and then spent the next ten years working on “The Joy of Cooking.”
“I wasn’t groomed for the position—I actually had other things in mind—but as I started working for the book ten years ago, right around the time I luckily met Megan and she started working for the book at the same time,” said Becker. “The first order of business when we were employees of the family was going through the last edition and testing the recipes. We would record what edition they were added into and how they changed over time, so we could get good historical background on the recipes themselves.”
Becker and Scott ultimately tested over 1500 recipes and added an additional 600 to the book. Chapters that had been cut from previous editions devoted to pickling, cocktails, ice cream, and jam making, were restored to the new addition. Other dated recipes didn’t make the cut. “The last edition did have some ‘gelatin salads’ that we wanted to get rid of,” Becker explained. “There was one in particular called ‘golden glow salad’ which has a pineapple, orange juice, and chicken stock base. It’s hard to even describe the recipe without laughing, so we tried to cut the ones that made us laugh, but we gave them a fair shake.”
In addition to a few of their own creations, regional specialties that were conspicuously missing from the book were added by Becker and Scott.
“We identified needs with American regional dishes,” said Becker. “For example, Chicago deep dish pizza, we didn’t have a recipe for that, but it is much easier to make than Neapolitan style pizza, and it’s a beloved classic for a reason. We should be adding that.”
Scott also brought some of her experience to the new addition.
“We revamped our whole section on cheese making and also talking about the different cheeses you might buy for a cheese board,” said Scott. “John and I both did a little of everything for the book, but we each have our specialties, our areas we’re more interested in. Baking and pastry was certainly my area. I took charge of that. Some of the baking chapters were the stronger chapters, probably because Irma really liked cake baking and cake decorating, so it wasn’t necessary that everything be overhauled.”
“After become so familiar with previous additions and how they changed over time it became easier to envision how this edition fits in,” Becker explained. “It felt like some monolithic ‘baking bible’ that the contents of which were decided at some council meeting by church elders. It’s a living book...I definitely feel a great responsibility to keep, not only conversational tone, but the spirit of the book the same. I think the book was always written with an especially keen awareness of what home cooks need. For Irma that really was the tone... ‘How do I write this to make people feel like they have a friend in the kitchen?’.”
Scott added, “Part of being a friend in the kitchen is telling anecdotes, stories, historical asides, and telling a joke every once in a while. It’s a book that can be enjoyable to read, but also pretty encyclopedic.”
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