The Daily Meal Hall of Fame: Irma S. Rombauer

Staff Writer
This St. Louis housewife's recipe collection became the most influential American cookbook of the twentieth century
Irma Rombauer

The Rombauer Estste

Rombauer published the first edition of The Joy of Cooking in 1931.

The Daily Meal is announcing the inductees into its Hall of Fame for 2016. The Hall of Fame honors key figures, both living and dead, from the world of food. We are introducing the honorees, one per weekday, beginning today. Our first inductee is Irma S. Rombauer.

 

The first ingredient in the recipe for the creation of the American home cook came in a very unlikely package. Irma Starkloff Rombauer (1877-1962) was the St. Louis-based wife of a prosperous lawyer whose pastimes included teaching art at a local private school and serving on the board of the symphony. In 1930, with her daughter, Marion, in college and her son, Edgar, ensconced in a Swiss boarding school, Irma found herself in somewhat dire straits after her husband committed suicide. Although known more for her hostessing skills than her cooking (she had hired help in her own home kitchen at one point), Rombauer decided — with the Great Depression looming and her family to support — to collect her recipes and try to sell them as a cookbook. She reportedly spent the better part of a year compiling and revising recipes, recruiting her daughter as her assistant in the process.

In 1931, a year after her husband’s death, the 54-year-old Rombauer, using her inheritance, self-published the resulting collection under the title The Joy of Cooking. It contained 500 recipes, the print run was 3,000 copies, and Marion did the illustrations. According to Joy’s official history, Rombauer sold it out of her apartment for a few years and, hoping to boost sales, studied recipe writing in the process. Here’s where her chief innovation comes in: In poring over recipes, she arrived at a new format that worked ingredients lists into recipe directions, so that recipes now mixed steps and ingredients together (what professional cooks call the “action method” of recipes). Rombauer’s idea in doing this was that it would help teach homemakers how to cook, not just how to follow a recipe — that they would learn techniques along with formulas.

This was a moment in American history when women were moving far away from their families of origin, following their husbands into growing cities for jobs; the oral tradition of sharing recipes from mother-to-daughter was breaking down, and what had taken over were newspaper columns by home economists and advertisements from food purveyors like meat-packing firms who offered recipes to their readers in impersonal, formulaic ways. Rombauer’s style represented a major departure from the home economics-driven recipes that looked like nothing more than math problems; her recipes became teaching tools, and following them felt to users as if there was a good friend standing right at their elbow guiding them along in words as well as numbers.There have now been eight editions of Joy published, and today Rombauer’s grandson Ethan Becker presides over the family business of caring for the title.

The Joy of Cooking was acquired by the Indianapolis-based publisher Bobbs-Merrill and reissued in an expanded version in 1936. It was a modest success, but enough to find Rombauer writing a new improved edition in 1943 (and losing the definite article in the title in the process). There have now been eight editions of Joy published, and today Rombauer’s grandson Ethan Becker presides over the family business of caring for the title. As it took off in popularity, Joy gained a reputation as the guide home cooks could turn to for foolproof versions of the kind of sturdy staples that most Americans crave: a great pan of brownies, a good Thanksgiving stuffing, real corned beef hash — simple, tasty dishes that you can count on, that you know will work, with recipes that, upon mastery, can be adapted by individual home cooks to their own tastes. What Irma Rombauer gave American home cooks was a kind of lesson plan for a burgeoning cuisine during a time of scarce resources when the idea of polished-yet-friendly comfort could carry the day. And, amazingly, Joy of Cooking has carried on instilling its brand of cheerful can-do confidence in cooks ever since. 

Find all Daily Meal Hall of Fame Inductees here. 

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