Every year, I add dozens and dozens of cookbooks to my (already enormous) collection. There’s a method to my madness; I write cookbooks for a living, and so it’s both vocation and passion that drives my purchasing. My wife’s relationship with my collection, on the other hand, is more fraught. She mostly moves the piles from place to place in our 750-square-foot flat; only occasionally does she actually thumb through a new title.
But a few weeks back, an advance copy of the newly revised Joy of Cooking landed with a thunk on our porch (literally; it’s 1156 pages and weighs nearly five pounds) and I watched my wife’s eyes light up. As with all editions prior, this latest version, shepherded to publication by Irma Rombauer’s great grandson, John Becker, and his wife, Megan Scott, has no photographs. The print is small, the headnotes for each recipe very brief. It is encyclopedic in both its content and design, not the kind of glossy, photo-heavy book you’d expect would catch someone’s eye. My wife grabbed it from me and immediately flipped to the index; she wanted to know if this edition still contained the recipe for the classic German cookie Lebkuchen (it does), and if the recipe had been altered since the 1975 edition (it has), which necessitated a text to her mother, who has been making the cookies since my wife was a girl.
Such is the power of this enduring cookbook, which was first published in 1931. Nostalgia is a strong force, particularly when it comes to food, and in the 88 years since that first edition debuted—written by a woman who was, by all accounts, not a great cook—many believe it has earned its spot in the iconic cookbook canon. But today’s cooks have access to millions of cookbooks (not to mention the internet), each more niche than the last, and so I wondered: Do modern cooks still need Joy of Cooking? Or, more to the point, can an updated edition of this iconic book accurately reflect the way the culinary landscape has changed in recent years?Megan ScottJohn Becker
To begin to answer that question, I call up John Becker, reaching him at his Portland, Oregon, home. He and Scott spent five years working on the revision of the book, a process that began with reading the previous (2006) edition cover to cover three times, flagging the antiquated, absurd, and altogether absent recipes as they went. Like the Constitution of cookbooks, Joy has always been a living document, with frequent revisions—eight in all—that reflect the times. The undertaking, then, was not without precedent. What’s unprecedented now is how many more cookbook titles are now vying for attention, and how many niche cookbooks exist, books devoted to everything from the Food of Oman to Keto diets to Instant Pots.
When Joy was published—and for, perhaps, its first 50 years—the genre in the U.S. was ruled by general interest books, largely collections of Eurocentric recipes that gave home cooks a quiver of arrows with which to make a decent meal. These sorts of “general interest” books are fewer and farther between now, in part because home cooks can purchase so many cookbooks that address their particular passions, and because the internet became a large-scale general interest cookbook, a vast online treasury of recipes for, well, everything. To ignore the myriad ways in which home cooking has changed in even the short time since the last edition was published would be appallingly tone-deaf, especially given that the whole purpose of revising the book was to make an edition that reflected the way we cook now. But to try and add to the book everything that should be included, from bibimbap to za’atar—foods that reflect the way American cooks cook today—is nothing short of a Herculean effort.
Joy’s revisions was guided neither by a database nor a focus group. Instead, it was up to Becker and Scott, who considered what should stay, what should go, what needed updating and what was perfect the way it was. In the end they added 600 recipes, and revised or updated 4000 more, making decisions led mostly by their own gut feelings, along with lots of recipe testing. “Deciding what should stay and what should go was really hard,” Becker says. He and Scott knew that every removal and addition would face some criticism, but they hoped to make the book useful to modern-day cooks while still preserving all that was good in what came before.
Just as previous editions tackled relevant issues and ingredients of their time, such as wartime rationing, so too this new edition. “Listen,” says Becker, “We’re not perfect recorders of culinary tradition. We’re not historians. We’re not anthropologists. I’m not even a professionally trained cook. But the book attempts to faithfully document cuisine through time.” This edition, for example, has a recipe for quick pressure cooker pho and a chart mapping recommended sous vide times and temperatures. This Joy instructs readers on shellfish safety during neurotoxin-producing algal blooms and teaches them how to make kombucha. Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, Becker recognizes that that work of revising Joy is never really done; this new edition launches November 12, and already he’s thinking about how to improve upon it for the next one, to be released in ten years, around the book’s 100th anniversary.
As meticulous as Becker and Scott’s efforts to update Joy were, there are invariably going to be some blind spots; no one book can include recipes for everything a cook might want to make in their lifetime. Some of those blind spots seem glaring. Why, for example, are there five Sichuan recipes and no West African dishes? Why are there only five Sichuan recipes? Yet it’s precisely this “little about a lot” approach to food and cooking that was one of the defining characteristics of Joy from the very start and, I’d argue, what has made the book so beloved by so many. Change that, and you’ve altered the very heart and soul of the book.
At some point during our conversation, Becker mentioned that he thinks of Joy as a desert-island book. If you could only take one, would you reach for your beautiful, in-depth tome dedicated to Oaxacan moles, or would you yearn for a book that could teach you a little about a lot of different things, from how to make pancakes to the best way to skin a squirrel? It’s a hypothetical question, but it supports some of the anecdotal data I gathered when I wrote and toured in support of my own cookbook. While there are outliers, the majority of my friends do not have the same cookbook library that crowds my own home. They want a book that contains multitudes, and Joy is certainly that book. This is not to say that it’s the only cookbook you should own, of course. But rare are the books from which you could learn essential information about thousands of ingredients, cookbooks you could cook from exclusively and still eat a varied, interesting diet. If home cooks of Rombauer’s generation wanted recipes for pot roast and biscuits, today’s home cooks want recipes for chile crisp and dal and vegan eggnog. Our benchmark for basics is different now. We’ve changed as cooks and, thankfully, Joy of Cooking has changed too.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious