Ode to Joy

I am the lucky and proud owner of a great historic tome, The Joy of Cooking. But wait, don’t run to your cupboards just yet — this is an old edition, last printed in 1975. The frontispiece still lists all the prior editions, dating back to 1931 — pre-freeway, pre-Cold War, pre global warming. To call it a cookbook doesn’t do it justice. This is one of the greatest historic documents of the 20th century. It’s a history book, an etiquette primer, a chemistry book, and best of all, a survival guide.

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Irma Rombauer’s cooking methods would make any present-day foodie’s techniques pale in comparison. She was 30 years ahead of her time. Nothing is wasted. Every bit is used, and sometimes re-used. In the first chapter, entitled “Foods We Eat,” she advocates searching for “unsprayed” vegetables and foods with minimal processing: “Choose fresh every time.” As for nutrition, Irma tells us that over-, not under-eating, is the cause of malnutrition. In one section she describes the chichi new fad of eating flowers, and offers a recipe for squash blossoms. In another chapter she suggests adding wheat germ for extra protein, and we all know this lady wasn’t running around in a caftan and grannie glasses.

The Joy of Cooking 1975 edition is nothing if not thorough. It has four pages dedicated to coffee, in which we learn that at its inception, coffee was considered as evil as wine to Islamic leaders. Moving from drip to percolated to espresso, the coup de grace is a festive recipe called Café Brulot or Diable which requires a darkened room for its presentation. Menus? Everything from breakfast to afternoon tea, dinner for family and friends to formal menus — luncheon, wedding buffet, Hunt breakfast (begins with Bloody Marys and ends 17 items later with Scandanavian Pastry) — and even a backpacking menu. And of course, there is the “Drinks” section, which includes beautiful illustrations of tools that a well-stocked home bartender can’t do without. Ms. Rombauer even describes the measurements for drinks, with equivalents. (Did you know that 1 dash = 6 drops, and that 1 jigger is 1 1/2 ounces?)

Here is a recipe for a Scarlett O’Hara: Shake well with 3/4 cup cracked ice: 4 jiggers Southern Comfort, 3 jiggers cranberry juice, 1 jigger lime juice. Strain into chilled glasses and serve with a twist of lime peel. That’ll add some fuel to your bra- or Tara-burning, take your pick.

But here is what really fascinates me: This edition has recipes that you’d be hard-pressed to find in anything but a reproduction of a homesteader’s diary. No city dweller will ever find herself in a situation that would make it necessary to cook up any of these arcane dishes, and even a concerted effort to find all of the ingredients would prove daunting at best. Check it out:

Page 435: About Wildfowl. Irma begins this section by describing her life of dwelling “under one of the major flyways of the world,” and she wasn’t talking about LAX. She describes the importance of proper care after shooting of wild birds, in order to get the best flavor. There are detailed instructions on plucking, drawing, hanging, aging, and finally seasoning and cooking the bird. Remember: when hanging birds to dry, “if the weather is very warm, dust the feathers with charcoal.” How many years of surviving in the wilds did it take to figure that out? And yet, in less than 40 years, all this golden wisdom has disappeared from the collective consciousness of most of the developed world.

Turn to page 515. Game: Squirrel, opossum, porcupine, raccoon. I kid you not. In all seriousness, Irma describes in detail how to trap, kill, skin, season, and cook these poor man’s delicacies. Study closely the left column on this page and you’ll see an illustration of gloved hands preparing to cut and skin a squirrel, boot firmly anchored on its tail, gloved mitts grasping its hind legs to pull the skin off the poor woodland creature — it looks as if the hunter is taking off the squirrel’s jammies. Remember: gray squirrels are preferable to red, which are quite gamey in flavor. For opossum, feed trapped ‘possum on milk and cereals for 10 days before killing. In other words, ya gotta be good and goddamned hungry to eat that thing.

But it’s not all about the meats. You have your fruits, veggies, breads, casseroles, appetizers — the recipes and ingredients therein are wide-ranging. Dishes involving Jell-o that we all might remember from our parents’ tables show up with great frequency, alongside oddities like breadfruit seeds, tomato soup cake, and sauteed cockscombs. Not everything is so far-fetched, however. I’ve made some delicious things out of this book. Her pancake recipe is the best around, and I’d never know how to roast a chicken properly after all my years of being a vegetarian if it weren’t for Irma. Why, thanks to The Joy, this year we made a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat.

The Joy of Cooking, circa 1975, has the combined knowledge of generations from Appalachian mountain lean-to, to upper-class British hunting party, and everything in-between. Did Irma grow up knowing how to cook this way? For that matter, did everyone else who lived 100 years ago (or less) come into this world, gloves and work boots at the ready? Our technology-bred generations have become flabby, handicapped to the ways of the natural world. Perhaps we have become The Borg, truly unable to survive without artificial intelligence, weak and confused without our Palms, iPods, internet, and GPS. Perhaps it’s time to get back to our roots.

That’s right, when the big one hits, make way — I’m running to grab my copy of The Joy. We’ll mix up some Scarlett O’Haras, and you can all sit around the campfire with me and feast on succulent porcupine, roasted squirrel, and hominy cakes spread with seasoned lard. Now that’s good eatin’!

6 responses to “Ode to Joy”

  1. farrell fawcett says:

    One of my resolutions: to comment more often.

    Thank you Jen for such an interesting educational post. I don’t cook that often (although perhaps that will be changing too in the new year), so I love appreciating a cook book as a cultural text–a lesson in how people once lived just a couple generations back. And yes, when the big one hits, everyone will need an animal-skinning primer like this, as well as that shotgun that another TGW mentioned recently in his defense of gun ownership. Funny how your post remined me of that essay.

    My wish for 2007: that none of us need a gun or hunting primer in the days to come. But may we all be fortunate enough to get dance lessons from Bryan.

    happy new year everyone!

  2. bryan says:

    pandora’s husband, mark, always had a copy of the Old Joy on hand, and did indeed use it to teach me how to measure a jigger. (That and the fact that the top of blender lids often hold a jigger.) We also reviewed the Game section carefully and wondered why, oh why, they dropped the squirrels and possums from the new version.

    i do like the new version a bit, though it’s cleaned up and gentrified, with all its whole foods market ingredients and such. but your post made me want to go ebay an old version for when i want to keep it traditional. thanks!

  3. J-man says:

    In the spirit of full disclosure, I don’t advocate gun ownership, nor could I bring myself to shoot, much less eat, one of those cute little animals. When the big one hits, you’ll probably find me, pale and wan by the side of the road, foraging for nuts and berries. And I’ll probably have named all the little woodland creatures and will be attempting to dress them in actual jammies.

  4. PB says:

    This is a great post. I don’t really cook, but when I do, I eschew Mark’s latest Bittman or Green or even his new “Joy” (he has a new and old) and go straight for “Joy” of butter, flour and sugar with pride. Cooking “lite” indeed.

  5. Stella says:

    You’ve transported me back in time to a world I never lived in, but feel like I did.

  6. […] A friend of mine recently held a really fun party. She loves to cook, and because the classic Joy of Cooking recently marked its 75th anniversary, she invited 15 friends to each select a dish from the book, make it, and bring it to her house. What a great time we had! […]