Northern Joy

Ode To Joy

Irma Rombauer’s 20-million bestseller, Joy of Cooking, has deep roots in Northern Michigan

By Patty LaNoue Stearns

I got my first copy of Joy of Cooking as a wedding present 25 years ago, and the all-purpose, encyclopedic tome quickly became my culinary bible. The thick, illustrated, 4,500-recipe cookbook covered everything from the method known as à blanc to zwieback pie crusts.

From its 915 pages I learned tips and techniques about food preparation that even my grandmothers didn’t know. The late culinary icons James Beard, Craig Claiborne and Julia Child all gave Joy their stamps of approval. Beard called it “the classic work” and “easy to use.” Claiborne dubbed it “the finest basic cookbook available … a masterpiece of clarity.” And Child said “… it is definitely number one on my list … the one book of all cookbooks in English that I would have on my shelf–if I could have but one.”

As for me, Joy so kindled my interest in all things edible, it propelled me into a career as a food writer. Author Irma Rombauer’s conversational yet authoritative writing style, combined with the modernity and wisdom of her daughter, tester, illustrator and co-author Marion Rombauer Becker, instilled my confidence in home entertaining. I was free to attempt seemingly impossible dishes like soufflés, sauces like marchande de vin and recipe development on my own.

So now, full circle, I am feeling the Joy once more. In mid-June (see the related schedule), Ethan Becker, Marion’s son, is coming to Northern Michigan, where in the summer of 1931, at the Dilworth Resort on Lake Charlevoix’s Horton Bay, his beloved Granny Rom wrote and assembled what was to become the world’s best-selling privately written cookbook–nearly 20 million copies and counting.

Ethan, who trained at the French culinary school Le Cordon Bleu and contributed mightily to my 1975 copy of Joy, recalls the amazing brownies and cookies his Granny Rom made for him as a boy of 8 or 9, and, totally unaware of Joy’s growing popularity, wondering why his schoolmates’ mothers always wanted to know what his mom, Marion, was concocting in their kitchen. Ethan’s name now graces the cover of the 75th anniversary edition (Simon & Schuster, $35), just below his grandmother’s and mother’s. His wife, Susan Cope Becker, along with Maggie Green, edited the 1,132-page book, its ninth revision, which came out two years ago to much acclaim–including another endorsement from 92-year-old Julia Child, written two months before she died. Joy devotees might recall the 1997 edition, which Susan calls “a nightmare,” for its departure from tradition–basically a rewrite job by too many hands that was roundly panned by food writers and home cooks alike.

Happily, the 75th anniversary edition’s familiar, trustworthy voice has returned, as delightful as the first time I paged through the book, looking for something delicious to create. Try the recipes that follow—handpicked by Ethan and Susan for their longevity …

This article appeared in the June 2008 issue of TRAVERSE. Click here to read the entire article online.