Essays

The Joy of Cooking

Topsham, Devon December, 2001 It’s that time of year again, Thanksgiving, and almost without thinking, I find myself reaching up on my bookshelf for my mother’s ancient and well-worn copy of The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. The book is frankly in poor condition. Its hard cover, grey with the distinctive "J of C" logo running across, is held together with yellowed Scotch tape and the spine has long disappeared. I’m not sure what year this particular copy was published because the frontispiece and prelims are missing; other pages are missing from the interior, too, while loose pages are just inserted randomly, no longer in their correct order. The glue that holds the binding together is now cracked and brittle.
I would guess that this edition probably dates from the early 1950s. Joy of Cooking is a remarkable book in that new and comprehensively revised editions have appeared down the decades, ever-evolving reflections of time, era, current (and now dated) food trends and enthusiasms. For example, when we were married in 1978, our sister-in-law gave us a British published copy, the fourth British edition, reprinted in 1974. ‘Revised and reorganised’ by Marion Rombauer Becker alone (had Irma passed away?), it seems, however, that overzealous editing and revisions meant that headnotes were missing and favourite recipes were subtly altered in this volume to the extent that whenever my mother came to visit, she would scorn using our book, saying dismissively that the recipes simply did not work. I’m sure they did, but they certainly were different, which amounts to much the same thing.
My mother’s volume is therefore the one that I always turn to. Battered and worn as it is, (testimony to decades of use in the frontline of the kitchen counter — I’m always suspicious of cookbooks that aren’t splattered with food), it still seems to exude something of a post-war optimism from its yellowing pages (or do I just imagine it?). At over 1000 (our volume by contrast has a paltry 849), it is written for a time of hope, a time of plenty. No hint of dreary rationing is evident here (there was no rationing, after all, in the US), and indeed the recipes, at a time that could hardly have anticipated the rise and rise of the supermarket, assume that almost every ingredient under the sun would be available, however exotic or foreign, simply for the asking.
This was my mother’s era: the era of euphoria and prosperity in American that followed the successful completion of the war (before the onset of the Cold War brought in new doubts and uncertainties). Just a child in Honolulu at the time of Pearl Harbour, mom was only in her teens when she came over to the mainland from Hawaii to study at USC. There she met my father, an apparently young and dashing Professor of Anthropology. They married; my brother David was born in New York City in 1953, me in Mexico City in 1955, and my sister Michele in Berkeley in 1960.
That mom’s marriage ended unhappily is altogether another story. Food was always important in our household. Even after my father went off, leaving my mother to bring up three young children on her own, the pure and simple joy of cooking was an activity that helped, I’m sure, to keep her sane and (on the whole) happy. And for us, eating well and copiously was never an issue: it was a fundamental touchstone of our childhood lives, something that we took totally for granted. Which is, after all, exactly how it should be.

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In truth, though The Joy of Cooking seemed to follow my mother most everywhere throughout her life, she was never really one for following recipes. She was the most instinctive and intuitive cook that I’ve ever known, and quite simply no-one else on earth could so effortlessly throw together the most delicious meals from whatever ingredients — meagre or sumptuous — were at hand. Yet the subtle and sure guidance of Irma S. is definitely there behind her. In the chapter on Meat, the section begins, ‘When a novice approaches a meat counter with a slim purse and an even slimmer knowledge of meat values, she may well reach a state of panic. What does one do with all those strange cuts that aren’t T-bones?’ What indeed? There, on the subsequent page is a humble recipe for a dish that we ate most weeks of the year: pot roast. I can see that this recipe is without doubt the blueprint for the dish as mom made it, with, as you’d expect, her own variations.
As I turn the pages of this old book, it brings back so many memories, from early childhood in California and British Columbia, adolescence in Ohio, and later years on the East Coast and in Italy, too. On page 598 I come across a mini instructional treatise on one of my all-time favourite cakes, yet one which I have not tasted — or even dreamt of tasting — in, what, probably nearly three decades: angel food. Thank you, Irma, for these words of wisdom which my mother obviously heeded well, ‘It seems to be the desire of every novice to bake a perfect angel cake. Fortunately, the accomplishment of this desire is entirely within reach.’ And again, on page 565 I find the recipe for hot water pie crust (‘the process is so simple it is absolutely fool-proof’) and can immediately picture my mother, humming an aria by Puccini, as she rolls out that ragged crust between two sheets of waxed paper. It was indeed always the flakiest, tastiest and best pie crust ever made, or so it remains in my mind.
Food memories and associations are always not purely happy ones, of course. My mother was a complex and troubled individual who fought, usually courageously, against persistent and recurring demons that at times threatened to consume her, those demons — as real and frightening to us children as if they were tangible, visible monsters — the product of her unhappy childhood, a mother who never loved her, and the rejection from her marriage.
How many times on Thanksgiving Day did I hear my mother sigh, "Marc, I wonder where we will be next year on Thanksgiving?" We sometimes wondered, too. Stifled by life in the Midwest, she suddenly upped and moved one year to Cambridge, Massachusetts. And though she was undoubtedly prone to the blackest bouts of depression, she was at heart a hopeless romantic, as evidenced by her decision to move, some years later, to Venice and become an Italian, something she did most successfully and thoroughly for the three glorious and happy years when she lived in that wonderful country.
In our house (wherever it might happen to be), food was definitely always at the heart of daily life. Indeed life as it was — with all its trials and tribulations — was played out most usually around the octagonal, oak-veneer dining table (itself a shopping mall product and relic of her — our — years in suburbia).
Of course, mom’s life had not been easy. When she was left, quite suddenly and desperately, alone with three children under six to bring up on her own (my sister was just a baby of a few months when my father upped and ran off, adding insult to injury by leaving mom for an *older* woman), it could not have been easy for her. Money certainly was scarce, something I can remember even though I was only five years old. A measure of how scarce it must have been was that we started to drink powdered milk instead of fresh. Not only powdered milk, but powdered skimmed milk, the thin taste and lumpy texture of which was wholly disgusting to us children (even today I doubt whether I could get a glass down). When times got better in later years, mom still always insisted on forcing us to drink powdered milk: it was almost as if she chose to continue with that wretched powder, wearing it like a badge of honour marking her former poverty, something real and tangible that you could taste — that literally stuck in your throat — as she found herself, almost against her will, in the strange and uncomfortable surroundings of middle-class, midwestern suburbia.

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How the smells of foods and past times waft up from the ancient pages of this book! As well as the hundreds, no thousands of recipes that it contains, the pages overflow with handwritten notes in mom’s round and girlish hand, crammed between the covers, on scraps of paper or card. Here on a bit of torn paper is the definitive recipe for mom’s chewy and delicious ginger snap cookies! I must make some tomorrow for Guy and Bella, for they are definitely the best cookies in the world. On another piece of paper I find the recipe for mom’s wonderful banana bread, moist and soft and almost gooey: I can taste it now, feel its sensual and sticky texture coating my mouth. There are notes that my sister has added too, tucked here and there, and a torn scrap of paper listing the ingredients (but no method) for spinach fritters, an old favourite of mine. A yellowed scrap of newspaper falls from the book: an ancient cutting from the San Francisco Chronicle under the heading ‘Budget Gourmet’.
I thumb through the pages and remember. After mom was divorced, she had occasional boyfriends who came over to our little house on Parker Street in Berkeley. I remember Ferdie, for example, a huge man who wore checked shirts and loved fishing. He once presented mom with a whole salmon trout, a gift that was, no doubt, a not inconsiderable gesture of affection if not intention. Mom adored fish since her upbringing in Hawaii, but it was something that we kids rarely ate. I remember she baked that whole salmon trout in foil and the smell of fish stunk out the kitchen, indeed stunk out the whole damn house. What a fuss we horrible children must have made. Well, and if we did, so what? We didn’t like fish, and we didn’t much like Ferdie, either, so we refused to eat it. Mom was furious and made us sit there with that bony, probably overcooked and strongly flavoured salmon trout in front of us, would not let us rise from the table until we ate every last bit. I remember gagging, choking on the bones, spitting out a mouthful of fish into a paper napkin and pocketing it: this was a defining food experience, and not a particularly pleasant one at that: indeed it was sufficient to put me off eating fish for some years afterwards (though fortunately not permanently).
Later, when we lived in British Columbia, in a tiny logging community on the banks of the Columbia River, mom befriended a family of Russian Dukhobor refugees. The woman wore a woollen headscarf and heavy black shoes, could hardly speak any English and seemed (to us spoiled American children) rather coarse and down-at-heel. But my mother liked the family, and the woman used to come over often and sit in our kitchen. She taught mom to make the most delicious borscht, but something I literally couldn’t stomach was another dish she passed on, kasha. Perhaps it was partly the name, kasha, so utterly down-at-heel and wholly unappetising (for the same reason, I could never enjoy eating eggplant as a child — the name alone put me off), allied with that peculiar, nutty but rather sourish taste that is unique to buckwheat. Or perhaps (and it’s quite possible) mom just didn’t learn to cook it very well (she was a great one for taking shortcuts or making her own variations — and of course she’d never waste anything, which meant that wholly unlikely ingredients or leftovers were apt to appear in unexpected guises). Funny, I’ve now come to love buckwheat galettes from Brittany, but the very thought or smell of kasha is enough to make me almost gag.
Most of my food memories, though, I’m happy to say, are wholly wonderful and delicious ones. For as children, we usually ate like kings and never questioned that food was anything but a daily way to bring at once both nourishment and pleasure.
Spaghetti was probably an all-time favourite (for years, it was the family joke that I said ‘bus-ghetti’, presumably because my childish tongue could not find its way around the ‘spag’). Though we now pride ourselves on our ragù, slowcooked for hours à la Marcella Hazan, reducing first with milk then with wine, and allowing the meaty mixture to just bubble until thickly concentrated, mom’s meat sauce was an altogether simpler affair. But my god, was it good. We would eat that spaghetti (probably overcooked because the concept of ‘al dente’ was not yet current) in massive quantity, my brother and I, the meat sauce ladled on in prodigious quantity. Indeed, as teenagers, I’m rather embarrassed to admit, the two of us could quite happily see off a whole pound of pasta at a sitting, an unbelievable amount that today seems, well, quite gross, and hardly humanly possible (even for hungry teenage boys).
If mom had reason to deny her Korean roots (as a child she was sent to Korea to live, unhappily, with relatives while her mother — my grandmother — pursued a career and active social life in Honolulu), her antipathy did not extend to food. As naturally as other children enjoyed hamburgers and hot dogs, we feasted regularly on such favourites as Korean barbecue, marinaded in soy sauce, garlic, ginger and sesame then flame broiled (only later did I learn that this is bulgogi, one of the great mainstays of Korean cuisine), mountains of steamed white rice, crunchy cucumber salad spiked liberally with red chillies, and spinach dressed in soy sauce and vinegar. This is still probably my all-time favourite meal, one which we’ve now passed down to our children, who have grown to love it too, eating the foods on the whole ignorant of the country from which they come, yet somehow absorbing through their tastebuds something of the culture and heritage that is undoubtedly part of their genetic makeup.
I think back on family meals and family favourites. Mom’s stuffed cabbage was legendary. I can so vividly picture her mixing the ground pork, raisins, bread soaked in milk, and seasonings; blanching the cabbage until limp; stuffing the meat into the wilted cabbage leaves with her hands; folding the bundles up neatly and securing them with wooden toothpicks. I remember, too, that the ‘sauce’ this was cooked in was always a can of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup. Today, we could hardly bring ourselves to cook with Campbell’s condensed tomato soup, yet how delicious, how utterly delicious mom’s result always was! It is a taste that will live forever in my mind, yet one that is most probably impossible to recreate (shall I try?).

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When mom died, at an unfairly young age, there were certain things from her kitchen that we children divvied up. It’s funny, she had beautiful Limoges china, solid silver cutlery, Baccarat crystal wine goblets, and lovely linen tablecloths (all gifts over the years from her incredibly generous brother, our Uncle Larry). But none of us were too fussed about any of this finery. My brother David wanted most of all mom’s old, blackened cast iron skillet and cast iron Dutch oven with glass lid (it was in the latter that mom always cooked her famous pot roast in as well as the stuffed cabbage rolls). Me, I realised what I wanted most of all was mom’s old, green glass salad dressing cruet: for as long as I could remember, in our home we always had a salad (just romaine lettuce, nothing else) most every dinner, dressed with a simple oil and vinegar dressing that was kept in this heirloom receptacle. When it was nearly empty, mom would make more dressing, simply from oil (not even olive in those days), cider vinegar, a pinch of salt and a huge amount of black pepper. And so it continues in our home today.
Something we might have fought over was mom’s copy of The Joy of Cooking: somehow we didn’t and I was allowed to keep this ancient and priceless volume.
It’s Thanksgiving, which is why I pulled it down off our bookshelf. In truth, I rarely look at this book at any other time of year, yet it remains — among the many volumes of food books on our shelf, written by famous cookery writers, friends, ourselves — an old and reliable friend, rather like one of those special friends who you may see only rarely but who you always can depend upon.
There is not much, in fact, that I need to consult for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner. I thumb idly through the section on ‘dressing’ more out of interest and habit, for I pride myself above all else on my own bread stuffing, made in mom’s serendipitous freestyle fashion, that is with whatever I feel like throwing in or is at hand: chestnuts, walnuts, celery, perhaps some chopped prunes, the cooked giblets, whatever. I never follow a recipe and it’s slightly different each year, but always (if I do say so myself) one of the highlights of the meal. I have a glance at the hot water crust recipe, though more out of nostalgia than necessity. My god, it’s made with half a cup of lard! No wonder it tasted so damn good. But Kim’s pâte brisée, loaded with sweet butter and as flaky and light as a feather, has now become a classic in our household, so good that the children like to eat it just on its own. Indeed, for them, this will become their own food icon, part of the culinary heritage they inherit from their mother and which they’ll remember for all of their long lives.
Of course we’ll make the old family favourites that we must have every year, such as carrots served with melted butter, a splash of vinegar and a generous sprinkling of fresh dill. Why? I don’t know, but we always had carrots and dill, so have them again, we must. Sweet potatoes, too, never candied in our family, just baked until soft, then fork mashed with lashings of butter. Kim now makes the best homemade cranberry sauce, from whole berries and orange. Homemade applesauce, too, cooked down from big, ugly, uneven Bramleys into the chunkiest and most delicious applesauce you’ve ever eaten.
My English friends sometimes ask what the Thanksgiving meal is all about. Yes, it’s about the pilgrims, the tradition and history; yes it’s about native American foods — turkey, cornbread, sweet potatoes, cranberries, pumpkin — which inevitably take pride of place and serve to link us to a common heritage, no matter how diverse our roots, or indeed how recently we or our parents may have come to this country (or indeed how long ago we may have left it). Most of all, Thanksgiving is about clinging to family and family tradition in an uncertain world of change; about once a year gathering together (no matter how far the distance) to sit down to the same familiar foods because, well, because we’ve always done so, because in so doing, these foods and flavours have become absorbed into our very being to the extent that they come almost to define where we’ve been, who and what we are.

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If we are what we eat, then great cookbooks can help us to define ourselves in a particular moment, place or era. From time to time, a book or books emerge from the hundreds on the shelves that reflect and mould the attitudes and tastes of a generation. The beautifully written, evocative and practically instructive books of Elizabeth David, redolent of the flavours of the Mediterranean, spoke to a generation desperate in Britain to break free from the dreary greyness of post-war rationing. Yet the greatest books, the true classics, go beyond their era to retain enduring value: even today, in a time of plenty, when fresh foods from anywhere in the world are widely available year round and frequent travel has made the exotic seem almost commonplace, Elizabeth David’s are still books that we return to again and again, to read, to dream, to inspire, if not to cook.
Clearly for my mother, The Joy of Cooking was such a volume: with its gentle exhortations, it not only taught her to cook, but inspired her to try new foods that suggested a world far beyond her own. For a restless soul, eager to break free from the constraints of a limiting, island-bound childhood, food was as much a vehicle to transport her to other worlds and places as surely as were the novels of Daphne du Maurier. In later years, The Joy remained for her something of a touchstone, wholly reliable and dependable in a world that was not always so.
What makes a great cookbook? It seems that those classics destined to endure are books with the capacity at once to teach (a recipe is essentially an instructional piece of writing, and thus a book with recipes that don’t work is worse than useless); to inspire (food writing is at once inspirational as well as aspirational, inviting us to venture beyond our normal realms of taste or experience); to transport; to entertain and provoke through words — for good food writing must be good writing, plain and simple.
Books that immediately spring to mind which have transported us, inspired us, taught us, made us feel warm and good and replete include: books on Italian food by Giulano Bugialli, Marcella Hazan and Ada Boni; Diana Kennedy’s Cuisines of Mexico; the wonderfully inspirational and practical La Methode and La Technique by Jacques Pepin; Craig Claiborne’s NY Times Cookbook; books on Indian cuisine by Madhur Jaffrey (one of the few television cooks who can write well); and Michel Guérard’s Cuisine Gourmande and Cuisine Minceur (translated brilliantly by Caroline Conran), to name just a few. A groundbreaking series that inspired us to travel in search of the regional and authentic was the Time-Life "Foods of the World" volumes, which combined food writing, reportage and outstanding location photography with practical recipes that really work.
Sometimes, though, it is unexpected volumes that retain a special affection. This is the case with what was probably the first cookbook that Kim and I really used (when we were students), The St. Michael All Colour Cookery Book by Jeni Wright. This volume, I’m sure, graced the kitchen counters of hundreds if not thousands of others students in bed-sits, digs, flats and other accommodation in universities throughout the land. The book came from good old dependable M & S, purchased by parents worried that their children would not eat properly once they’d left home.
Today, it may look rather dated (on our copy, the spine is torn, pages are folded over, there are splashes of gravy and wine most everywhere), but make no mistake: this is an inspirational volume which takes the reader on a whirlwind culinary journey around the world starting in the garden of basics. We learned through this book to make homemade stock, white sauce and how to roast a chicken. And we discovered a world of food in vichyssoise, French onion soup, pork fillet with prunes, circassian chicken, paprika chicken (made most usually with chicken wings, all that we could afford in student days), ratatouille, moussaka, sag gosht and more. We were of course madly in love and, in great part through this book, we discovered the love of cooking together and the love of eating together. It’s quite true to say we’ve never looked back.
Our own books are ones that we turn to regularly, too, not least because the recipes they contain are for foods that we know and love and eat often. It is, I think, every food authors’s hope that somewhere, in kitchens anywhere in the world, someone may have a copy of a favourite work (in our case The Wine and Food of Europe, our first book, published in 1982), propped up on a countertop, outrageously and irreverently splattered with gravy and wine, the jacket torn, the binding cracked and brittle, the pages over-scribbled with personal notes, perhaps in a round and girlish hand.

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Like the binding on an old book, the glue that holds our lives together can also sometimes become cracked and brittle. Yet food — familiar food, home food, foods that we remember and pass on to our children, foods that we love and which make us feel good and warm and happy and replete — can help to keep the separate pages and days and years of our lives in a certain semblance of order and continuity and satisfaction. Taste and taste memories, as Proust demonstrated, are powerful movers in their capacity to transport us immediately and comprehensively back through time and place to a particular moment, forever deep-frozen and preserved within our minds.
What hope, then, for a generation today whose childhood taste memories will only be of processed foods, cook-chilled ready-prepared meals, pot noodles, chicken nuggets, tomato ketchup, chips and burgers and deep-frozen pizza? What hope indeed?
Some simple resolutions for 2002: to buy an angel food cake tin; to try and recreate mom’s stuffed cabbage rolls (with Campbell’s condensed tomato soup); to cook pot roast more often; and to bake ginger snaps with Bella every Sunday. We can but try.
For the joy of cooking: it comes, I realise, not from the pages of any book but from passing on our love — of food, of life — through the foods that we prepare and share with our families, our children, our friends.

Copyright © Marc Millon 2001