Life and Times
Irma Rombauer was the author of one of America’s most influential cookbooks to date, “The Joy of Cooking.” The story of the book, though, is the story of both her and her daughter, Marion.
The “Joy of Cooking” is still one of the most loved American cookbooks. It provides all the basics that a North American cook will need in an easy to use and find way. For this reason, it’s still the first book that many people starting looking in for ideas.
There are cookbooks that will tell you how to do something fancier or more authentically, but if this book has it, it will be straightforward and easy.
Up until the appearance of the “Joy of Cooking”, cookbooks had been very serious books, and many talked down to you. People still like Irma’s chatty approach with which she attempts to engage the reader. Indeed, the original title was “The Joy of Cooking: A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat.” Irma gave friendly, uncondescending advice to anyone setting out on his / her own in a house or apartment.
Many people assume by her name that she was Jewish, and that the style of cooking in the book will be Jewish, but it’s not. There’s no political, social or cultural agenda to her. She steers a middle road between cooking as a high art and cooking as a science and form of nutrition. Hers isn’t the book you’d turn to for health-food cooking, or for ethnic foods.
For her, cooking was something you did because you had to, but you wanted to exercise minimum effort while still making maximum impression. In her own life, she used a lot of shortcuts — canned foods, stock cubes, etc.
A double-column layout allowed for more recipes on the pages. The book is organized in the way a meal would flow, from starters to dessert (the book is particularly well-known for its desserts, which are both reliable and popular.) Special items such as preserves, candies, and high altitude cooking are tucked at the end.
Cockaigne appears sometimes in the title of recipes such as Almond Torte Cockaigne and Chicken Soup Cockaigne. Cockaigne is the name that her daughter, Marion, had for the house she lived in; the house was designed by John, Marion’s husband, and sat on eight acres.
Irma and Marion’s Beginnings
Irma Louise Starkloff was born 30 October 1877 in St Louis, Missouri. She had at least two siblings, a sister named Elsa, and a brother named Emil, whom the family later dismissed as an incorrigible, notorious con man. Her parents were Max and Emma C. (née Kuhlmann) von Starkloff. She grew up on the German side of St Louis. For five years, from 1889 until 1894, the family lived in Bremen, Germany, while Max was posted there as American consul.
In 1897, at the age of 20, Irma started at Washington University’s School of Fine Arts.
On 18 June 1898, Irma’s sister Elsa married a St Louis lawyer, Julius Thamer Muench (Julius’s father was also an American consul in Germany — Saxony in his case — until 1905.) The next year, Irma herself got married on 14 October 1899 to Edgar Roderich Rombauer, a lawyer (born Illinois 1868), 10 years older than her. Edgar also had a sister named Irma (1883 — 1985.)
Irma and Edgar had three children:
- Roland S. born 1900 who died 1901
- Marion J. Rombauer (2 January 1903 — 1976)
- Edgar H. Rombauer (15 August 1907 — )
Irma settled into life as a well-off suburban housewife who not only didn’t have to work, but also had help at home. Consequently, Irma spent her time instead involved in various women’s groups and good causes such as the board of the St Louis Symphony. She was admired as a hostess and cook amongst various groups she supported.
In 1918, Irma’s sister Elsa died on 31 May.
In the early 1920s, as an early sign of what she would later turn her hand to, Irma collected 73 recipes for a Women’s Alliance class she held at a Unitarian Church in St Louis, of which she was a very active member.
In 1925, Irma and Edgar’s family was on the move. Irma and Edgar Sr travelled around Europe. Marion, who was studying arts at Vassar College in New York State, came to Europe for a while to study dance in Munich, and gymnastics at the Gindler school in Berlin. Young Edgar was at school in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In 1926, Marion worked for a year at a department store in St Louis. From 1927 to 1929, Marion was a columnist for “Women’s Wear Daily” in St Louis, writing on fashion. From 1929 to 1932, Marion taught art at John Burroughs private school, in Ladue, St Louis, with a break in 1930 (possibly during the summer) to travel about Mexico.
Early in 1930, tragedy struck Irma when her husband Edgar committed suicide. Without Edgar’s income to rely on, Irma realized she needed to see what she could do on her own. She went to Charlevoix, Michigan that summer with all her recipes, to get away from people to allow her to weed through them and decide what she could make of them. She returned home determined to produce a cookbook, and set to work typing up the book, recruiting Marion to help her test recipes, and then revising what she’d typed.
In 30 November 1931, at the age of 54, Irma self-published her book, calling it “The Joy of Cooking.” Her husband’s estate had left her $6,000. She put up $3,000 of it to have the book published. The first edition was 3,000 copies, with over 500 recipes, personally tested by her and Marion. She also got Marion to illustrate the book. Her printer was A.C. Clayton, who was just that: a printer, not even book publishers.
On 18 June 1932, Marion married John William Becker (1902 — 1974), an architect. They would have two children, Mark (born 16 January 1937 ) and Ethan (born 6 August 1945.) Marion then moved to Cincinnati, where she was head of the Art Department for Hillsdale School from 1932 to 1936. From 1932 until 1948, Marion was involved only very occasionally in the book. Instead, she worked for organizations in Cincinnati such as the Regional Planning Council of Cincinnati and Vicinity (1934-36), the Better Housing League (1935-63) and the Cincinnati Modern Art Society (1942 to 1954.)
Meanwhile, back in St Louis, in 1936 Irma had signed a contract for the book with a real publisher, Bobbs-Merrill. The contract gave him the copyright both to the new and to her self-published edition. Irma travelled to Europe in that year to celebrate.
- 1938 — Irma signs contract with Bobbs-Merrill for a second book, “Streamlined Cooking”
- 1939 — “Streamlined Cooking” published
- 1951 — Marion joins her mother as co-author
- 1952 — Irma returned to Europe, taking with her Marion’s son Mark Becker (born 1940. Mark’s younger brother Ethan would later assist with a 1997 edition of the book)
- 1954 — Irma travels to Mexico
- 1955 — Irma starts her autobiography, “My Little World”, but never gets very far with it
- 1955 — Irma has her first stroke
- 1955 — Marion diagnosed with breast cancer, has first mastectomy
- 1956 — Irma receives an alumni award from Washington University
- 1962 — The “The” was dropped from the title of “The Joy of Cooking.” Irma was not up to working on this edition, so Marion did it by herself. But Marion was new at dealing with publishers, and perhaps in the mind of the publisher, Bobbs-Merrill, they knew the book better than this upstart daughter. Consequently, Bobbs-Merrill, according to Marion later on, did their best to minimize her intervention. Marion never liked the 1962 edition, and many back her up saying it was full of errors. The edition appeared one week after Irma died
- 1962 — 14 October 1962 Irma dies after a series of strokes. She was buried in Bellespanaine Cemetery.
- 1965 — Marion travels to the UK
- 1966 — Marion has second mastectomy for breast cancer
- 1974 — Marion’s husband John develops brain cancer in March and dies in October. Marion recruits her son Ethan and his wife Joan to help her with the next edition that is underway.
- 1975 — March. Eighth edition was published. Julia Child gives it a glowing review.
- 1976 — The Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce made a film of Marion’s life. Marion died 28 December 1976. A medicinal herb garden was named for her at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
Joy of Cooking Editions
The book has never been out of print. It has, though, changed a great deal over the years with all its revisions.
1931. 30 November. 1st edition.
1936 (second revision.) 1 May
1943 (third revision)
1946 (fourth revision, some recipes from Streamlined Cooking added)
1951 (fifth revision, first one done with Marion. Illustrations are no longer Marion’s, though, they were done by Ginnie Hofmann
1962 (sixth revision, also called the “unauthorized edition”)
1963 (seventh revision) 1962 edition corrected by Marion
1964. A good reprint of the 1963 edition, with many further corrections.
1973. First paperback print.
1975 March. (eighth revision)
1979 Paperback print in a special boxed set with oven mitt
1997 (ninth revision)
1998. Facsimile reprint was done in 1998 of the original 1931 edition, preface written by Irma’s son Edgar H., who was still alive. Irma and he had actually not gotten along well.
The 1936 edition took the ingredients out of the directions, and listed them separately, in chronological order.
The two least-liked editions appear to be the 1951 one, and 1997 one. People now aren’t keen on the 1962 edition either, and point to many errors in it.
Marion was perhaps happiest with the 1975 revision. New people at the publisher’s stopped trying to do end runs around her. The 1975 revision remained the current version for the next 22 years, and was re-printed constantly during that time. It is still the most recommended edition today (2007.)
The 1997 edition was substantially different. It was done by Maria Guarnaschelli, Ethan Becker (Marion’s son and a Cordon Bleu graduate, born 1945), and teams of professional cooks. It’s very different from the book that people knew for 66 years. More high-brow, Irma’s chatty tones have been stripped out, as well as her down-to-earth ingredients such as canned soups and frozen vegetables. Most of the classic recipes for jellied salads were dropped as well. It is an very large book, almost encyclopaedic both in size and tone of voice.
Irma’s book inspired the title of the 1972 bestseller, “The Joy of Sex.”
Other Books by Irma Rombauer
1939. Streamlined Cooking. Quick recipes with shortcuts for working women.
1946. The Cookbook for Girls and Boys.
Other Books by Marion Rombauer Becker
1971. Wild Wealth. (a gardening book)
1966. Little Acorn: The Story Behind the Joy of Cooking 1931 — 1966