by Irma Rombauer
Bobbs Merrill Co., Publisher
Review by Maria Bustillos
The edition of the venerable Joy of Cooking which I am recommending is the 1953 one, though I do not doubt that the versions published by Mrs. Rombauer in 1931, 1936, 1941, 1942, 1946, 1951 and 1952 are all equally entertaining and informative. It's just that I've had a 1953 one for ages, and it is an old friend and companion.
Mrs. Rombauer's sunny, enlightened presence has, alas, slowly faded from modern versions, and, even more sadly, from the world at large. There may in fact be no one left like the original Rombauer. With what relish does she describe the disastrously inedible meal she first cooked her husband as a "young bride", for instance! (Martha Stewart, one feels sure, would never admit to so much as a stray peanut-butter cookie inadvertently scorched at the age of seven.) Mrs. Rombauer wears her mantle of greatness so lightly, so easily. In this 1013-page behemoth of a cookbook, the doughty authoress does not shrink from steaming brains with you, nor drawing wild birds, nor squirting paper cornucopias full of icing into daisy shapes (“although the botanist might not recognize these structures as such.”) Her giddy bonhomie never fails her. Our own neurotic age has lost the graceful art of tempering competence with humor and self-deprecation. For that reason alone, this is an illuminating, philosophical book--gentle, wise, and, occasionally, hilarious.
“My roots are Victorian,” Mrs. Rombauer writes in the Foreword, “but I have been modernized by life and my children.” Modernization in Mrs. Rombauer's case extended to mysterious and newfangled contraptions such as the home freezer (“Excess air within the frozen food package is a real enemy”), but her chapter on Frozen Foods is still the most detailed, useful primer on this confusing subject I have seen anywhere, and best among its many virtues, it begins with one of the most charming passages in modern letters:
“We are indebted to an Arctic explorer for the following Eskimo rule for a frozen dinner:
“Kill and eviscerate a medium-sized walrus. Net several flocks of small migrating birds and remove only one small wing feather from each wing. Store birds whole in interior of walrus. Sew up walrus and freeze. Then two years or so later, find the cache if you can, notify clan of a feast. Partially thaw walrus. Slice and serve.' Simplicity itself.”
The loveliest thing about this formidable recipe is Mrs. Rombauer's tacit acceptance of the fact that one might easily lose track of a frozen walrus in the space of two years; another ineluctable fact totally excluded from the dream universes of Martha Stewart, Anna Wintour and many other arbiters of taste in the modern world. Real cooking is full of such accidents; Mrs. Rombauer understood this, and rejoiced in it.