[Sca-cooks] NY Times Article on new edition of The Joy of Cooking

Phil Troy / G. Tacitus Adamantius adamantius.magister at verizon.net
Thu Nov 2 03:36:11 PST 2006

Sheesh, was it almost ten years ago when they went all nouvelle on us  
and abandoned the canning section???

> November 1, 2006
> Does the World Need Another ‘Joy’? Do You?
> MY heart is breaking for the “Joy of Cooking.” And it’s not just  
> because of the blender borscht recipe that forced me to open my  
> first can of cream of chicken soup in years.
> The poor dear has endured so many family battles, bad reviews and  
> makeovers that it has become something akin to a child star trying  
> to survive warring parents.
> “Joy of Cooking” is the most popular cookbook in America. Some 18  
> million copies have been printed, starting with the slim volume of  
> recipes Irma Rombauer put together in 1930 as a way to cope with  
> her husband’s suicide.
> Over the years, “Joy” grew to a stout 1,000 pages and became the  
> one book you gave young cooks and newly married couples. Glance at  
> your bookshelf: it’s probably there.
> Now Scribner, the publisher, wants you to add a new “Joy” to the  
> shelf. Just in time for its 75th anniversary, “Joy of Cooking” has  
> undergone radical surgery. Meet the Best Loved and Brand New “Joy  
> of Cooking,” in bookstores for $30 this week.
> If this sounds a little familiar, that’s because “Joy of Cooking”  
> underwent a similar transformation in 1997, when we were asked to  
> forget our beloved dog-eared copies and buy the All New, All  
> Purpose “Joy of Cooking,” priced at $35.
> That well-engineered but unloved revision turned out to be the New  
> Coke of cookbooks.
> Caught between unhappy family heirs and tepid reviews, Scribner is  
> now suggesting we just forget about all that nonsense 10 years ago.  
> They didn’t really mean it when they scrubbed the homey Rombauer- 
> Becker family wisdom and killed the canning section.
> The good news is that no amount of infighting or marketing spin can  
> alter the essence of the book. Equipped with 4,500 recipes and help  
> for every conceivable kitchen quandary, “Joy” is the Swiss Army  
> knife of cookbooks.
> The bad news is that this new version forces a decision. Which  
> “Joy” do we want? Do we keep our mother’s vintage copy from the  
> ’60s? The reliable and popular version from 1975? The smart, chef- 
> driven 1997 book? Or do we clean house, get with the times and buy  
> the new book, which has much more reference material along with a  
> cloying coat of nostalgia?
> It’s an awful lot to weigh for someone who just wants to bake some  
> brownies.
> To make sense of all the “Joys,” I piled the new book alongside  
> four of its older sisters on the dining room table and began to  
> read and to cook.
> Over the years, Mrs. Rombauer and later her daughter, Marion  
> Rombauer Becker, enlarged the book into a kitchen reference that  
> can help you do everything from mix a gimlet to purify water, both  
> of which are helpful in an emergency. It tells you the best  
> temperature at which to judge whether a dish is too salty (just  
> below 98 degrees) and offers guidelines on how to set a table when  
> there’s a beverage spoon involved.
> But for most cooks, the “Joy of Cooking” is a simple reference  
> book. You open it to figure out how to structure a soup, how long  
> to boil an egg or how much condensed milk goes into a coconut  
> macaroon. Need a short history of basil? It’s here, along with tips  
> on working with a caterer and recipes for every holiday cookie  
> you’ve ever tasted.
> “I turn to it for the things that don’t really turn up in today’s  
> uppity cookbooks,” said Nach Waxman, the owner of Kitchen Arts &  
> Letters, a cookbook store on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “If  
> it’s after Thanksgiving and I want to know how to make a turkey  
> croquette I’m going to turn to ‘Joy.’ ”
> So if that’s what we really want, why do they keep changing it?
> The new old “Joy” is essentially a rewrite of the 1975 edition, the  
> most popular one. It corrects, at least in the mind of Ethan  
> Becker, Irma Rombauer’s grandson and the keeper of the family  
> franchise, the big mistake that was the 1997 version.
> That book took on and largely succeeded at what was a daunting  
> task: mastering the mountain of culinary changes that took place  
> between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s. It became a contemporary,  
> efficient and thorough study on cooking with impeccably researched  
> recipes.
> The editor, Maria Guarnaschelli, strived for a tone that was more  
> instructional and less quaint. And she took the ax to many favorite  
> sections, including studies on preserves and freezing.
> But the death of the homey first-person tone was the most  
> controversial move.
> Ms. Guarnaschelli wisely got rid of family-centric passages like  
> this one, which kicked off the strudel section: “When the last  
> princesse slip was beribboned, our beloved Hungarian laundress  
> sometimes found time to give us a treat.” Many of the weaker  
> Rombauer-Becker family recipes were gone, too.
> A few appreciated the changes, but most critics said the book had  
> lost its voice. Beth Wareham, the new editor, calls the 1997  
> version a book of great recipes but not really what most people  
> consider the real “Joy of Cooking.”
> “Irma was such a good writer,” she said. “At the end of the day  
> what brings it back is that interesting literary quality.”
> Some of the literary value was supplied through charming headnotes  
> by the Rombauer women, which Ms. Wareham restored. Other sections  
> were rewritten by Mr. Becker’s wife, Susan, who says her background  
> in advertising gave her the ability to mimic the voice of Irma  
> Rombauer.
> While the new book rightly restores sections that fell to Ms.  
> Guarnaschelli’s pen — the ice cream and pickling sections, for  
> example — it goes too far in its effort to rebuild the family  
> house. Some of the gee-shucks recipes are just not very good, and  
> the Becker family homage woven throughout the chapters can seem  
> creepily cultish.
> In particular, somebody needed to rethink the recipes attributed to  
> Mr. Becker himself. There is the Becker burger, fried in olive oil  
> and tarted up with port, soy sauce and hot pepper sauce; the Becker  
> sour cream dip; and a Becker bloody bull shot.
> The marketing tactics, which include references to post-Sept. 11  
> comfort cooking and a sanctioned line of Joy of Cooking  
> kitchenware, is all about forced nostalgia. One of the big selling  
> points is the return of recipes called “Joy Classics,” including 35  
> from 1931 to 1975 that are set aside in a special part of the  
> index. A young publicist gushed about making shrimp wiggle for her  
> roommate. Awesome!
> One might understand why the dish, essentially creamed shrimp and  
> peas on toast, was kept from both the 1975 and the 1997 editions.  
> But here it is again. And its inclusion says a lot about the most  
> annoying part of the new “Joy.” If the 1997 version was a little  
> stiff and too professional, the new version suffers from presenting  
> old “Joy” material as kitsch with a postmodern side of irony.
> (Mr. Becker is not thrilled with the way the book is being pitched:  
> “I think there’s been a little too much emphasis on the Farmer  
> Almanac-ness of it.”)
> In conversations and in promotional material, Ms. Wareham and the  
> publicity team hold out the tuna casserole recipe as an example of  
> the difference between the versions. The last “Joy” called for  
> béchamel sauce. The new one brings back good old canned cream of  
> mushroom soup.
> “Why burn your fuel over tuna noodle casserole?” Ms. Wareham said.  
> “It’s not a fancy dress.”
> Good point, but “Joy” needs to give us more than just a casual- 
> Friday approach to cooking. Must we still be held in sway to  
> Campbell’s tasteless, cream-of-whatever salt bombs? And surely the  
> Rombauers’ blender borscht takes things too far. The recipe? One  
> can each of beets, cream of chicken soup and condensed consommé. A  
> clove of raw garlic is optional.
> The thing looks like a raspberry smoothie and tastes like a  
> chemistry student’s homework. And although the new book has an  
> expanded nutrition section overseen by Dr. Walter Willett, a  
> professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, it fails to note  
> that the family borscht has 1,000 milligrams of sodium per cup — a  
> little under half the recommended sodium for an entire day.
> It’s that odd mix of sophisticated culinary thoroughness laced with  
> Victorian admonishments and Beckerisms — health tips and canned  
> soup, pad Thai and shrimp wiggle — that make the new book a  
> disappointment.
> “Joy” would have been better served if its editors had walked the  
> solid middle ground, giving us a practical, homey cookbook built  
> with common sense and recipes that taste good. Consider the  
> borscht. The 1997 book had two borscht options, a simple “New York  
> deli borscht,” based on simmering carrots and fresh beets, and a 19- 
> ingredient behemoth that involves a separate recipe for beef stock.  
> (That recipe, slightly modified, survived the cut for the new book.)
> My favorite version, however, was in the 1975 book. Beets, carrots,  
> onions and cabbage are simmered in beef stock with a shot of red- 
> wine vinegar. It’s the kind of thing one could serve hot on a cold  
> Tuesday night, fortified with some browned beef cubes and sour cream.
> The game sections offer another example of nostalgia run amok. The  
> 1997 book removed references to porcupine, raccoon and squirrel,  
> omissions that have been held up as proof that “Joy” had lost its  
> soul. The new version includes no recipes for those creatures,  
> although it does suggest they can be cooked like chicken. (To be  
> fair, the rabbit-skinning diagram is back, and the venison section  
> is much improved.)
> Ice creams and other frozen desserts fare much better in the new  
> book, which is not saying much, since they were virtually  
> eliminated in the 1997 version. And to its further credit, the new  
> book has a much deeper section on grains, and devotes lots of space  
> to cooking vegetables in a microwave, a method I am increasingly  
> fond of. The very solid cocktail section has been restored and, in  
> keeping with the sensibilities of the founding family, there is  
> more material on how to grow food and forage.
> Other things in the new book’s favor include a pumped-up “Know Your  
> Ingredients” section that manages to be sophisticated and complete  
> without the esoteric air of the 1997 version and the dated feel of  
> the 1975 one.
> Pickling and brunch are back, but at the cost of some excellent  
> passages from food writers like Corby Kummer, who delved deep into  
> coffee and tea in the 1997 version.
> Some of the new choices were very smart, though. The 1997 book  
> devoted a section to small plates, a restaurant trend that’s  
> already fraying at the edges. It’s gone from the new book, which  
> acquiesces to current eating styles by devoting a section of the  
> index to recipes in the book that can be made in 30 minutes and has  
> a better organized approach to using leftovers.
> All that being said, the new version is the most complete and  
> current “Joy” you can buy. If I didn’t have my trusty 1975 version,  
> I would shell out $30. But for the number of times I actually dip  
> into “Joy,” the ’75 will suffice. After all, a meringue is a  
> meringue and cuts of beef don’t really change.
> Still, cooking is a highly personal thing, and the book that fits  
> best depends on your demographic, your kitchen skill and your  
> existing cookbook collection. Those who want a book that reminds  
> them of their mothers and includes the pecan-laden angel slices  
> they remember from childhood might prefer a vintage edition from  
> the 1950s, or the 1963 revision.
> My brother, the best cook in the family and someone who prefers not  
> to mix sentimentality with information, is the kind of cook who  
> would appreciate the smarter tone, multicultural depth and thorough  
> exploration of technique in the 1997 book.
> But for those who have yet to pick up a copy of “Joy,” it makes  
> sense to get the new one. If you can look past the kitsch, the hand  
> of Irma Rombauer and her daughter will be with you in the kitchen  
> for a lifetime.
> Or at least until meddlers mess it up again.

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