Portlanders write 'Joy' for a new generation of cooks
The bible of American cooking has returned, thanks to a relative of original author Irma S. Rombauer.
Portlanders John Becker and Megan Scott just finished a nine-year project producing the latest edition of "Joy of Cooking" ($40, Scribner), which includes more than 4,000 revised and updated recipes.
Becker is the great-grandson of Irma S. Rombauer. The married couple followed in the footsteps of Irma and her daughter, Marion, adding timely updates and new recipes to the fourth edition of this kitchen classic.
The Tribune caught up with Becker and Scott for a question-and-answer session about the book. (They gave some answers jointly):
Tribune: Why has the "Joy of Cooking" endured so long?
Scott/Becker: It all goes back to Irma. She approached her readers as peers. She never pretended she had some superior knowledge. Her book was really there to be a friend in the kitchen, and she infused it with her sense of humor. She was charming, witty. The subtitle of the 1931 edition was "a collection of reliable recipes with a casual culinary chat."
In the '60s, when Irma died and Marion took over, the book retained a lot of Irma's wit, but Marion applied her studiousness to it. She added a ton of reference information and really turned "Joy" into the "desert-island" book most people know it as today. We were very much trying to follow in Irma's and Marion's footsteps with this revision. One of our mantras was "teaching people to cook, without dogma."
Tribune: Why do cookbooks still matter?
Scott/Becker: Cookbooks are one of a very few categories in the publishing industry that have actually grown over the past 15 years. "Joy" is a book that you not only use for decades, but one that many folks pass down. Books carry the weight of memory, which is something a website will probably never be able to do.
Further, anyone can put anything on the internet. When you Google something, the first results that pop up are not going to be the ones with the correct answer to your question — they're going to be the ones with the best SEO (Search Engine Optimization).
Not that books are perfect and websites can't be trusted, but there is more invested in polishing books. We were searching for primary sources. So while we did use the internet, we also used scientific articles, reference books and textbooks.
Tribune: How big was this revision project?
Scott: Utterly massive. When we started apprenticing with John's dad, Ethan, in 2010, we were testing recipes from the 2006 edition. We did "recipe genealogies" and scoured old editions to see where each recipe came into the book.
We tested and researched 1,500 recipes or so over four years. We read histories of the book, most notably Anne Medelson's "Stand Facing the Stove." We were also managing the "Joy" social media accounts and website and hearing directly from "Joy" fans.
We worked with a developer to turn the 2006 edition into an iOS app, which involved taking the book apart and putting it back together. We had almost internalized "Joy," and we knew how all the pieces fit together. It is a project that has been undertaken now by four generations of John's family now.
Tribune: John, did you know your great-grandmother Irma S. Rombauer?
Becker: I was born in 1979, so I did not have the pleasure to meet Irma or Marion. Irma passed away in 1962 and Marion died in 1976.
Growing up, I knew Marion from the artifacts she left behind. I spent the school year in Portland with my mother, Joan, and summers with my father Ethan, who lived for many years at the home Marion and her husband, John, built on the outskirts of Cincinnati. John was an architect, and one of the few practitioners of the Modernist, Bauhaus school in the Midwest at the time the house was built in 1939.
Marion was involved with the Cincinnati Art Museum, and had a similar preoccupation with Modernist artforms. They befriended luminaries like Buckminster Fuller and Alexander Calder and would host artists as they toured the U.S.
As a child, I was left to my own devices in their home as Ethan worked in the office on "Joy," or in the garage on his side business making and selling outdoor knives. Many of the pieces John and Marion accumulated were still around — a Calder mobile, a Man Ray chess set, Eames loungers, various sculptures. I did not realize their significance until many years later.
My first connection with my grandmother as a real person was when I was 5 or 6. It was late spring, and my mother, Joan, led me out to the small patch of strawberries in front of our condo. We picked some and brought them back inside. She spooned sour cream in one bowl, brown sugar in another, and told me to dip the strawberries in one and then the other. "Your grandmother was allergic to strawberries, but she liked them so much like this that she would eat them anyway."
Tribune: John, how did growing up in Portland shape your relationship to cooking?
Becker: I spent more than half of my childhood in Portland. I grew up in Southwest Portland, and my parents divorced when I was a year old or so. I lived with Joan in Capitol Hill until she finished nursing school. She was open to lots of new foods.
We would eat at Tara's Thai II in Beaverton and Macheezmo Mouse (boss sauce!). For special occasions, we would drive to Ginza or Delphina's, then on Northwest 21st, or to Der Rheinlander, the Alexis, or Plainfield's Mayur. Later, Bistro Montage, Hamburger Mary's, Bertha Station in Hillsdale, Rimsky Korsakoffee House, Tapeo and Lemongrass were favorites.
Brunch at the cafe at the Oregon College of Arts and Craft was a weekly ritual, and I remember going to Wildwood and Genoa for prom dates. Between high school and college, a roommate introduced me to Vietnamese food at Pho Hung. The big spinach pie at Nicholas Restaurant and the shawarma at Hoda's were definitely formative culinary discoveries.
I worked downtown as a courier delivering blueprints, and I would spend lunch breaks at the Indian cart on Alder, Thai Peacock, or Martinotti's. I would wait out rush hour traffic after work at the Tugboat brewery, clutching a Chernobyl stout.
Tribune: Where do you like to go these days?
Scott/Becker: An absolute favorite is La Moule. Everything Aaron Barnett and his crew makes is amazing. The mussels are excellent, but the steak frites is not to be messed with either. We also really love PaaDee and Eem; Lovely's Fifty Fifty; MeKha; Coquine; and El Yucateco, a cart on 131st and Sandy.
Tribune: What sections of the book changed most?
Scott: We thoroughly revised every section of every chapter. For vegetables, we had to update the reference information and the approach to cooking as well. The overall philosophy of cooking vegetables has changed a lot over the years.
For a long time, Americans cooked vegetables to death and/or smothered them in béchamel. Then there was a backlash, and everything was about crisp-tender vegetables. Now I think we have a more balanced approach — vegetables can be great cooked for a long time, as with braised collard greens, cooked at very high heat until browned or blackened, as with roasted cauliflower, or cooked crisp-tender, as for sauteed cabbage. People also expect vegetable dishes to be a lot more flavorful and interesting, since vegetables are at the center of the plate more and more.
Tribune: "Joy" has 600 new recipes. How did you choose them?
Scott/Becker: Some recipes were intended to fill in gaps. For example, "Joy" never had a recipe for Cajun dirty rice; St. Louis gooey butter cake; chana masala; Mission-style burritos; or Palomas.
In other cases, we added things that we're personally really enthusiastic about, like Guyanese pepperpot. Other recipes were from our families or just things we like to make at home, like Megan's great-grandmother's recipe for Southern-style chicken and dumplings; John's table salsa recipe; and Megan's granola.
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