Several years ago, my mother presented me with a wonderful gift. It was a cookbook titled Mom’s Cookbook: A Culinary Memoir of Family, Food, and Friends. I cherish this book and hold it dear to my heart, perhaps more than any gift she has ever given me.
On the pages inside, my Mother dumped out her entire culinary mind. It fills over eighty-five pages and it’s lined with hundreds of recipes. It was organized and formatted into book form for her children, family, and friends to enjoy. Sounds like a simple and common idea, but she added an additional component that made her cookbook priceless to me. My mother presented each recipe, from the simple plate of hors d’oeuvres to the intimidating cheese soufflé, with its own unique story. In her own voice, often in a humorous and chatty tone, she explains where each recipe originated, when and where she served them, and how people reacted to them.
Her goal was to guide her children towards more success in the kitchen, and she does it in a loving and motherly way. As I read it, I can hear her voice giving me direction such as “avoid any vegetable that comes in a can”, “you must own a good chef’s knife”, and “grow your own herbs, if possible”. She urges us to eat meals together as a family, say grace (prayer provided), and even a reminder to drink our milk.
It includes her mother’s fried chicken recipe (my favorite) and the simple bean salad she made for my father when they were young and broke. She includes the cheese puffs served by her mother-in-law at my Christening, the Beef Stroganoff she served to my hungover housemates at the University of Dayton, and even a pumpkin bisque recipe she found last year in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The family history tales are my personal favorite. I learned my parents clashed over how to make gravy, that her two children refused to eat certain foods like mushrooms (my sister) and squash (me). She explains her difficulty getting recipes out of my late father, a brilliant cook, but one who refused to write anything down. Even the recipe names are amusing, such as the unappetizing sound of “Aunt Ethel’s Yams” (that I will never attempt to cook).
My favorite line could even be when she uses the “Cold Salads” chapter to scold my sister:
I don’t know if my mother realized it (maybe she did), but her cookbook isn’t much different from the famous one written by a notable St. Louisan over eighty years ago. The Joy of Cooking, a compilation of recipes published by Irma Louise von Starkloff in 1931, revolutionized cookbook writing. Widely regarded for its conversational tone, simplicity, and sentiment that cooking should be fun, The Joy of Cooking is now a staple in nearly every American kitchen. In that book, as in my mother’s cookbook, it’s implied that a cook should not take oneself too seriously. I believe the simple goal of both books is to feed the people around you with love and good food.
What’s enjoyable about researching Irma Rombauer is that she left quite a trail in St. Louis. Except for a few years during her youth, she lived in this city her entire life. Several of the homes she lived in still stand. To add to the fun, I made plans to find all of them during a lengthy visit from my Mother. If Mom wasn’t reorganizing my kitchen, making meatloaf, or drinking gin and tonics with me, I was able to throw her in the car so we could find Irma Rombauer together.
Irma Louise von Starkloff was born on October 30, 1877 in Carondelet. Her parents raised her in the St. Louis Deutschtum, or “Germanness” that permeated south St. Louis at the time. Her father, Maximilian von Starkloff, was a “Forty-Eighter”, a man who believed in German unification and came to America when it didn’t happen. A successful physician, his medical practice on Main Street (now Broadway) provided his family a comfortable existence.
In 1889, Max Starkloff accepted a post as Consul of Bremen in the Harrison administration. The family moved abroad for five years, and this would be the only time Irma Starkloff did not live in St. Louis. When the family returned to America in 1894, a stately new mansion awaited them at the corner of Compton and Longfellow in the affluent Compton Heights neighborhood.
According to her biographer Anne Mendelson, in her book Stand Facing the Stove, Irma Starkloff was strong-willed, intelligent, forthright, and artistic. She was also volatile, and especially later in life, family members often had to endure her fits of irritability. She fully enjoyed the admiration others heaped upon her, especially men. She played piano, enjoyed theater, and acted in amateur stage productions. It was during one of these productions when a young cast mate named Edgar Rombauer began courting her.
Later in life, Irma Rombauer described Edgar, the man she married in 1899, as “exuberant”. The couple had three children together and spent many years of their marriage in loving companionship. However, Edgar suffered from episodes of nervous breakdown that arose during challenging times, such as the death of their first child in 1901. Over the years, Irma Rombauer worked diligently to care for her husband during his bouts with stability. Lengthy vacations were often required to bring her husband back to a place of tranquility. Sadly, despite efforts from his family, Edgar succumbed to his disease and committed suicide in 1930.
The death of her husband left Irma Rombauer shell-shocked. At the age of fifty-two, and faced with supporting a family with no means of income, she searched for a direction. Inspired by a successful cookbook published to support a St. Louis children’s home, Rombauer picked up the pieces and went to work. With no reservations about her lack of experience, and equipped with an unrivaled determination, she began compiling, testing, and tinkering with nearly 400 pages of recipes gathered from her family, friends, and neighbors. The result became one of the best-selling cookbooks in history.
What’s remarkable about this feat is that Irma Rombauer had no formal culinary education. Even her family seemed puzzled by the endeavor, since cooking had never been her primary talent. A member of her late husband’s family (a group Irma shared a prickly relationship with), even exclaimed:
Her unwitting approach to publishing a cookbook could explain why Irma Rombauer’s project achieved such widespread success. The art of cooking and recipe writing in the early 20th century was more scientific than imaginative. Recipes read like formulas, and not at all like the casual tone found in future editions of The Joy of Cooking. During a time when cookbooks angled towards experienced gourmets of means, her cookbook represented a practical approach for all levels of income and ability.
The first edition of The Joy of Cooking was self-published in 1931. Irma Rombauer used half of her life savings (about $3,000) to pay a local shoebox label printer to print 3,000 copies. Among other specifics, She insisted it have a cover that could wash easily with a moist cloth. Her daughter Marion, an art teacher, provided the cover and chapter heading designs. When the printed books arrived at her apartment on Cabanne Avenue, she quickly set to work selling them door to door for $3.00 each.
The first edition of The Joy of Cooking frequently echoes her German heritage. Included are recipes for Hassenpfeffer (rabbit stew), Spatzen (German egg dumplings), as well as several pages devoted to brain, liver, and kidney recipes. In introducing Leberkloesse (liver dumplings), Rombauer writes:
“Being the child of a south German, I cannot well compile a cook book without including a dish that is typical of that neck of the woods”
Despite positive reviews and brisk sales, efforts to obtain interest from major publishing houses were unsuccessful. It was during this time that Irma Rombauer started re-thinking how she presented recipes in her cookbook. She developed a format now known as the “Action Method”, in which ingredients are not listed in a separate table. Instead, each ingredient is introduced (in bold text) at the point when it is used in the cooking process.
This casual, flowing method of cooking is what appealed to an Indianapolis publisher looking to take cookbook publication in a new direction. In 1936, the Bobbs-Merrill Company signed Rombauer and published the second edition of The Joy of Cooking. This edition introduced the new recipe format and added “A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat” to the title. The book retained Rombauer’s unpretentious dialog, which appealed to readers and helped build a solid fan base. It sold over fifty-thousand copies, making The Joy of Cooking a modest success.
The third edition, published in 1943, added a section featuring “Quick Cooking”. Another innovation, it included recipes that used canned goods, frozen foods, and new cooking implements designed to speed preparation. Ingredients such as condensed soups and Jell-O became mainstays due to their convenience. While many cooks haughtily rejected these short cuts, Irma Rombauer fully embraced them. This further endeared her to a larger audience, and helped make the third edition of The Joy of Cooking a national bestseller. The 1943 edition sold well over 600,000 copies, and Irma Rombauer hit her stride.
The success of The Joy of Cooking would pay off eventually, but the first contract signed with Bobbs-Merrill was decidedly one-sided. Inexperienced and acting against the advice of lawyers, Rombauer signed the copyright of the first two editions of The Joy of Cooking over to the publisher. Without full control of her creation going forward, the relationship between author and publisher quickly became acrimonious. It wouldn’t improve in the years ahead, and the inequity often set Irma Rombauer into fits of rage. By the end of the 1940’s, and her health in decline, she made a move to protect her creation. Starting with the fourth edition published in 1951, her daughter Marion officially became co-author of The Joy of Cooking.
Marion Rombauer Becker had previously contributed artwork and recipe tasting, but her contribution going forward would now become much more significant. Marion was a proponent of healthy eating. With her contribution, The Joy of Cooking began to emphasize the use of fresh produce and organic gardening. She insisted on removing several canned food recipes, brown rice was favored over white rice, and for the first time, the cookbook instructed readers to avoid things like “the modern processing of grain”.
As co-author, Marion also assumed the unenviable position of becoming the key negotiator with the publisher. Irma Rombauer could now turn her attention to basking in the glow of being America’s cook, a position she embraced with open arms. Irma Rombauer wanted her cookbook to become America’s kitchen bible, and the continued success of the Joy of Cooking in the years following her death would undoubtedly please her.
Irma Rombauer died at a nursing home in St. Louis on October 14, 1962 at the age of eighty-four. Marion Rombauer Becker died in Cincinnati in 1976. Marion’s son, Ethan Becker, now carries on the legacy of The Joy of Cooking. Currently in its eighth edition, the Joy of Cooking has sold more than 26 million copies worldwide since 1931.
In the first edition of The Joy of Cooking, the very first recipe listed in the book is a “Gin Cocktail”. Even better, Irma Rombauer writes the very first sentence as such:
“Most cocktails containing liquor are made today with gin and ingenuity. In brief, take an ample supply of the former and use your imagination.”
Call me crazy, but that’s an opening on par with “Call me Ishmael”.
Since the first edition contains only a few cocktail recipes, I decided to venture into the 1963 edition to get a drink idea from my latest subject of interest. As I did, I was happy to discover that she directs her readers to stir (and not shake) a Manhattan or a Martini. This only confirms my opinion that Irma Rombauer certainly knew what she was doing.
Irma Rombauer’s Manhattan recipe isn’t extraordinary, so I decided to go with a cocktail that I haven’t featured before in Distilled History. I settled on the Sidecar, a cocktail that traces its origin back to the years around World War I. It’s considered a classic, but one I rarely order in a bar (the only one I can currently recall was at Sanctuaria in the Grove). Bars in London and Paris dispute who first created it, but it became an instant hit during a time when sour drinks were popular.
Irma Rombauer wasn’t a heavy drinker. She didn’t enjoy throwing a few back until she was in her later years. Either way, I like to imagine her sampling cocktails with her daughter in their apartment on Cabanne Avenue and figuring out what each of them preferred. Her Sidecar uses more lemon juice than I prefer, but she’s earned the right to make a solid opinion. The only change I made to her recipe was to rim the glass with sugar (which is how the drink is commonly served), and I did that only to impress my mother.
Since Mom had to put up with me writing this post during one of her rare visits, she certainly earned something a little extra.
NOTES: As mentioned earlier, this post would not have been possible without the book Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America The Joy of Cooking, by Anne Mendelson. Rarely have I read a biography written as beautifully written and readable as that one. A hearty thanks to Harold Karabell for giving me the idea to write about Mrs. Rombauer when he showed me the Starkloff house on Michigan Avenue. Finally, an enormous thank you to the wonderful people at Bellefontaine Cemetery who personally showed me Irma Rombauer’s final resting place.