The Genius of the Joy of Cooking

by Tim Farrell

Forget magazine clippings and newspaper headlines. If you really want to put your finger on the pulse of American culture, just flip through an edition of the Joy of Cooking.

The ubiquity of the Joy of Cooking is staggering. More than 18 million copies have sold since the Great Depression—when a Midwestern widow named Irma Rombauer published her recipes and anecdotes in the hope of lifting America's spirits. And while the lemonade concoctions and tuna casserole recipes were delicious, the real secret of the cookbook's success isn't that it soothed stomachs; it's that it catered to hearts and minds.

The Artist of Life

Irma Rombauer's young life was uniquely charmed. She was born in 1877 to wealthy German immigrants and spent her teenage years shuttling between her hometown of St. Louis and the elegant port city of Bremen, Germany. After enjoying a brief tryst with novelist Booth Tarkington, Irma settled down and married an attorney, with whom she raised two children. Although never employed, she thought of herself as an "artist of life," a renaissance woman who aspired to live vibrantly and suck the marrow out of every moment.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Irma's spirit was put to the test. Her husband, who'd long suffered from depression, committed suicide. But instead of wallowing in grief, the 54-year-old widow found meaning in a project—writing a cookbook she titled The Joy of Cooking: A Collection of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat. Once completed in 1931, she spent half her savings to publish the book locally in St. Louis. Friends and acquaintances tested the recipes, and the feedback was encouraging, so she began pitching it to major publishers. Five years later, in 1936, Bobbs-Merrill finally took a chance on it and agreed to distribute the Joy of Cooking nationwide.

The truth is that Irma had never been a great chef, but she was an excellent hostess. She could whip up a party at a moment's notice and keep all of her guests entertained. By infusing the Joy of Cooking's text with that same wit and conviviality, Irma set her cookbook apart. From the first page, she skipped the kitchen basics in favor of extolling the virtues of cocktails: "They loosen tongues and unbutton the reserves of the socially diffident. Serve them by all means, preferably in the living room, and the sooner the better."

Irma's German heritage also deeply influenced early editions of the book. The first Joy includes recipes for dishes such as blitzkuchen and linzer tortes and even a few rousing quotes from Goethe. Irma also exhibited an endearing frankness with her readers. Unlike any other cookbook narrator at the time, Irma admitted to her lack of expertise and joked about not having time to cook. In one section, she wrote, "The German recipe reads, "˜stir for one hour,' but of course, no high-gear American has time for that." Simply stated, Irma Rombauer knew her audience.

Joy and Depression

Other than maybe The Grapes of Wrath, no book grasped the hardships of the Great Depression better than the Joy of Cooking. Irma understood that American housewives were struggling to put food on the table, and she addressed those challenges head on. Many entries began with the tag "Inexpensive and good." There was even an appendix on making the most of leftovers, including stale bread, bones, coffee grounds, and pickle vinegar.

Along with these tidbits, Irma also included the food preferences of celebrities and monarchs. "Is there anything better than good coffee cake?" she wrote. "I am told that the former king of Spain "˜dunks.'" These asides bore little culinary relevance, but they made readers believe they shared something in common with royalty and celebrities. Follow this recipe, Irma hinted, and you're making the same sponge cake that Queen Mary once made for King George V when he was under the weather.

As the country marched off to WWII, the Joy of Cooking adapted to the times. Irma's 1943 edition was the first major cookbook to address the issue of rationing. Once again, she treated cutbacks as opportunities for innovation, creating recipes such as Butterless, Eggless, Milkless Cake. She even gave soybeans top billing, featuring them as a prime substitute for meat.

A Family Tradition

joy-of-cooking-1951By 1951, Irma was in her seventies, so her daughter, Marion Becker, took over the bulk of her work. In some ways, Marion was even more of a visionary than her mother, and many of her choices for the 1951 Joy of Cooking helped transform it into the classic it is today. For example, to illustrate techniques and ingredients, Marion added 150 line drawings. She could have chosen trendy photographs, but her decision to use simple, helpful sketches ensured that the book would feel timeless. By contrast, the technicolor cakes and sweaty roast turkeys of 1950's Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook now feel dated. Marion also introduced a simple lowercase font for the logo. At the time, this was an understated choice; today, it's an icon of cookery.

Like her mother, Marion also drew inspiration from the national mood. When the next edition of Joy was commissioned in 1963, the carefree consumer atmosphere of postwar America was over. Doctors no longer plugged cigarettes on TV, and books such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring dominated the shelves. To address growing consumer awareness, Marion cut some of Irma's digressions to make way for more relevant information. She included a massive section titled "Know Your Ingredients," containing charts, diagrams, and exhaustive explanations on everything from the best way to beat eggs to how yeast works. The goal was to help readers understand not just the hows of cooking, but the whys, as well.

Marion also wanted Americans to eat healthier, so she added nutritional advice to the pages of Joy. Plagued by undiagnosed food allergies as a child, she understood the link between ingredients and wellness years before people started talking about "organic farming" and "health food." Although the book still contained plenty of recipes for condensed-soup joy-of-cooking-1975casseroles, 1963's Joy suggested using fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables instead of canned or frozen produce. In an era of Wonder Bread, Marion Becker pushed for whole grains.

Marion produced her last revision in 1975 with the help of her husband, John, and son, Ethan. The work was a monumental tome, containing more than 4,500 recipes and 1,000 illustrations. Thanks to its encyclopedic size, this edition became the resource not only for grandmothers searching for German chocolate cake recipes, but also for their hippie grandchildren looking for tips on granola. Presciently, the book warned readers against overusing microwaves, which were embraced by most major cookbooks at the time. (Off the record, Marion actually wrote to Ralph Nader that she believed microwaves were zapping the nutritional value from food.) The 1975 Joy was considered so authoritative that it remained in print for more than 20 years.

Today's Tastes

In 1997, Scribner Books hired a team of chefs to write a completely new Joy. Critics slammed the edition for being sterile and lacking any sense of playfulness. In 2006, the publisher made amends. Ethan Becker and his wife, Susan, were put in charge of the 75th anniversary edition, creating a new version that combined Marion Becker's conscientiousness with her mother's sense of fun.

Instead of catering to weight-loss fads (the authors thank heaven that low-carb diets are no longer in vogue), the latest Joy stresses moderation and balance. The classic, gut-busting German cakes are still there, but they share space with homemade energy bars. Marion would be pleased to see that ethnic cooking is represented on a level that reflects our culture, with recipes for hummus, cream cheese balls, and salsa on neighboring pages. Meanwhile, her mother would be happy that cocktails are back, along with old, quirky recipes, such as Lemonade for 100 People. And the tidbits are classically Irma. For example: "The Romans, who were passionate about snails, grew them on ranches where they were fed special foods like bay leaves, wine, and spicy soups as pre-seasoning."

But to really grasp the spirit of the Joy of Cooking, one needs only to look at the index of the latest edition, which begins with a Samuel Johnson quote. It reads, "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it." Irma would be proud.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. If you didn't get what you wanted this holiday season, and what you wanted was a subscription to mental_floss magazine, here's where you can order one yourself.

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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