Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Recipes are clear and will never fail you

The Joy of Cooking saga continues with this article from Kim Severson, asking “Does the word need another ‘Joy’? Do You?”

Severson goes into great depth about the unhappy infighting surrounding the 1997 edition, dismissing it as the “New Coke” of cookbooks. Blame is laid squarely at editor Maria Guarnaschelli’s feet for the book’s modern, “clinical” feel. The newly restored Joy gives us homey Rombauer/Becker headnotes, albeit a few penned by Susan Becker, Ethan’s wife, who “says her background in advertising gave her the ability to mimic the voice of Irma Rombauer.” This alarming quote aside, we can relax and enjoy the restored the canning and ice-cream sections, along with the game chapter, even if the raccoon recipes are gone.

“The good news,” Severson writes, “is that no amount of infighting or spin can alter the essence of the book....”Joy” is the Swiss Army knife of cookbooks.”

Agreed. But....

“The bad news is that this new version forces a decision. Which ‘Joy’ do we want?”

The question is a specious one. There is no reason a cook must decide to use only one Joy of Cooking. Do we feel this way about the Fannie Farmer series? Reject new editions of the Junior League Cookbook? As Severson points out, the 1997 “took on and largely succeeded at what was a daunting task: mastering the mountain of culinary changes that took place between the mid-1970’s and the mid-1990’s. It became a contemporary, efficient and thorough study on cooking with impeccably researched recipes.”

In 1997, I just becoming serious about cooking. I was also in graduate school and could barely afford to buy food, much less a library on preparing it. My mother bought me the ’97. It was nothing short of a godsend, and remains a book I turn to repeatedly.

My other two editions—a ’64 and the fabled ’75—see less actual recipe use. Instead I troll their “about” sections. I turn to them for solid advice on table setting, alcoholic beverages, their peerless pages on coffee and tea service.

But every Halloween I open the ’64 for the roasted pumpkin seed recipe. My husband adores roasted pumpkin seeds; it is my wifely duty to separate string and slime from those precious morsels. I could probably roast pumpkin seeds without the book, but the ’64 Joy reminds me to set the oven at 250 degrees, not 350 or even the 400 I was planning on, saving me from burning my beloved’s once-yearly treat.

Here is Laurie Colwin, writing of her 1942 edition:

“Because it was published during the war, it has recipes for eggless cakes and long-lasting cookies that you could send to your boys overseas. The recipes are clear and will never fail you.” (More Home Cooking, 126)

“The recipes are clear and will never fail you.” They will also tell you about the society your grandparents inhabited, the way your mother was told to cook when she married, and the way you live now. In 1942 we sent our boys cookies. We planted victory gardens. We were in the right, and we knew it.

The '64 has a page of menus for Afternoon Tea. Suggested dishes include mixed seafood newburg, pineapple biscuits with cream cheese, canape snails, and cucumber lilies. In 1964, Americans were not sitting before computers at four o’clock, or running off to the gym, or driving their kids to soccer while arguing on a cell telephone. Some were sitting down to tea with canape snails and cucumber lilies. Then they went home to dinner, which might be Salmon Loaf with Cheese Sauce, or Pork Tenderloin Fruit Casserole. Jack was gone, but race riots and hippie revolt were still a couple years off.

By 1975, we'd been in, then out, of Viet Nam. We sent our boys nothing, then ignored them when they returned. The hippie era had come and gone. Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Jimi, Janis, and Jim were all dead. Nixon lied and was pardoned (and how quaintly civilized his crimes seem today, in the grim light of comparison). Vegetarianism was creeping into the mainstream. In the ’75, Afternoon Tea menus shrink to a half-page; we have cold glazed salmon, soybean casserole, seviche.

Leap forward, to the maligned ’97. True, this edition won’t tell you how to skin a porcupine. But when where you last challenged by this onerous task? The “tired” little dishes include salmon pate and tapenade; the grains section includes Thai coconut rice and couscous. The beef, poultry, and fish roam the earth’s cuisines without being prohibitively difficult to prepare.

Now, hopelessly mired in yet another losing war, parents send their boys (and girls) body armor as Scribners gives us a “repaired” 75th edition of Joy.

I’ll buy it and simply add it to the burgeoning cookbook shelf, and so will a lot of other people. And a cookbook shelf lined with editions of Joy is indeed a joyous sight. Devotees see an honest, reliable cookbook, from the first collection assembled by a grieving housewife on down to her grandson, his wife, and a host of publishing people looking to cash in this holiday season. Yes, there are some bad things about this latest edition. There are bad things about all the editions. But Joy is uniquely American, in all its incarnations. Our history, both national and personal (how many of us have our mother’s Joy? How many of us received it as a wedding gift?), is bound up in it. The recipes are clear and will never fail you. It would be nice if we could say this about American governmental policy. We can’t. But here is Joy, 75 years old and going strong.

Does the world need another Joy? Do you?

Do you even need to ask?

The Colwin quite comes from More Home Cooking, Harper Perennial. 1988


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