The Joy of Cooking's Family History

by AMNH on


The wall of cookbooks showcasing ancient recipes and modern international classics in the new exhibition Our Global Kitchen includes an early edition of that all-American blockbuster: Joy of Cooking. Written and self-published by Irma S. Rombauer in 1931, Joy has sold about 18 million copies and is currently in its ninth edition.

Along with other members of Rombauer’s family, her great-grandson John Becker is still involved with the editing and publishing of the iconic cookbook. He recently spoke to us about Irma Rombauer, the cookbook’s down-to-Earth essence, and the family’s own favorite recipes from the cookbook (hint: they’re sweet).

John Becker Megan Scott Joy of Cooking
John Becker, a great-grandson of the author of Joy of Cooking, with his wife, Megan Scott. The pair edit the cookbook's website.

Your great-grandmother, Irma S. Rombauer, published Joy during the Great Depression, after being widowed. How did she decide to write and publish it?

By 1930, Irma had about $6,000 dollars to her name (as well as some then-worthless stocks). With money to survive but no financial certainty, or obvious career choices before her, Irma started letting her friends, family, and fellow women's club members know that she intended to publish a cookbook, which she hastily began collecting recipes for. She used most of her savings to self-publish Joy in 1931. 

1931 Joy of Cooking
The Art Deco cover of the first edition of Joy of Cooking depicts St. Martha of Bethany, the patron saint of cooking; she is slaying the dragon of kitchen drudgery.

Who designed the first edition's cover?

Irma’s daughter Marion designed the dust jacket for the 1931 edition, along with all of the chapter-heading silhouettes. A talented artist, Marion's favorite medium was “cut-outs”: she would trace silhouettes onto paper, cut these out, and compose images with the pieces.

What was Irma like?

I think Irma, with the help of her wonderful biographer Anne Mendelson, will always be remembered as a Lebenskünstler, or “life artist.” What does that mean exactly? Full of life, precocious, extroverted, the life (or hostess) of the party, an agile mind with a cheerful temperament, strong opinions, fine tastes, and an inability to stay at rest for long.

My father, Ethan, remembers visiting “Granny Rom” at her apartment in St. Louis's West End, where he was showered with affection, cookies, and cakes—which were by far Irma's favorite thing to cook…

Irma and Marion Joy of Cooking
Joy of Cooking author Irma S. Rombauer with her daughter, Marion, who worked with her mother on the beloved "all-purpose" cookbook.

What was her early life like?

Irma was born to a well-off German family. Her father was a doctor who moved to St. Louis from Germany, by way of New York and California, in 1860. Irma, born in 1877, grew up in a world of privilege where little was expected of her …. Irma's education—which she referred to derisively as an “intellectual patina”—was definitely supplemented by the family's temporary move to Bremen, Germany, where Max held a consulship for a short time.

How did she learn to cook?

Ironically, Irma was known more for her abilities as a sharp-witted entertainer and hostess than for any special aptitude in the kitchen. What little expertise she did have was, not surprisingly, in the dessert department, or came from watching others, most notably from her husband Edgar, an avid, life-long outdoorsman who knew his way around a skillet.

What are some of the family’s favorite Joy recipes?

First, the  “Rombauer Special,” a chocolate cake topped with fluffy white icing. That's been in the book from the first edition onward.

Square of cake with icing.
The Rombauer Special, a chocolate cake with white icing.

Irma's grandmother passed along perhaps the most delicious apple dessert I've ever had, “Sour Cream Apple Soufflé Cake Cockaigne.” It’s the quintessential Joy recipe, at least from the family's perspective—it made the trip from Germany, after all.

A square slice of an apple soufflé cake cockaigne with what seems like a dollop of sour cream icing next to it.
Sour Cream Apple Soufflé Cake Cockaigne, from the Joy of Cooking. 

“Molasses Thins,” a delicious icebox cookie recipe, is thought to be the last one Irma penned. We find it special for that reason.

Molasses Thins Joy of Cooking
Molasses Thins, "a delicious icebox cookie recipe" from the Joy of Cooking

 Joy is known as an American cookbook, but where else is it popular?

We get a surprising number of hits on our website,, from India, Singapore, the Philippines. In fact, we have been getting some very affectionate blog-love from a number of Indian cooks who love the practical, no-nonsense, information-rich approach we take.

The exclusive corporate sponsor for Our Global Kitchen is J.P. Morgan.

Additional support for Our Global Kitchen and its related educational and online resources has been provided by GRACE Communications Foundation.

The Kitchen Experience is presented by Whole Foods Market.