November 12, 2019

John Becker and Megan Scott

A new generation finds joy in cooking
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After 88 years as America’s most popular cookbook, Irma Rombauer’s great-grandson John Becker and his wife, Megan Scott, continue the legacy of Joy of Cooking. We caught up with the authors about their contributions to this latest edition.

What’s the biggest difference between the original edition of Joy and this one?
Size! This is due to several factors. Perhaps the most meaningful and defining is Marion [Rombauer Becker]’s contribution to the 1963 and 1975 editions of Joy. These two editions were truly groundbreaking for us. Before, Joy was Irma [Rombauer]’s book: a collection of useful recipes, rendered on the page with wit and aplomb. Marion had a grander vision for Joy: a collection of recipes and a primer on making ingredients—items such as corned beef, sausage, cheese and tofu—from scratch and a compendium of trusted information, covering subjects ranging from the best fats to use for deep-frying to tips for beating egg whites to instructions for growing various herbs to the difference between cassia and true cinnamon.

Though we hold the 1931 edition as sacred and admire Irma’s style and wit, Marion is the one whom we looked to most when deciding how best to improve Joy. The cookbook publishing world has a surplus of titles that are highly personal. Indeed, personality is the primary selling point for countless books every year. Among this abundance of tightly focused titles, we felt that the best way to position Joy was as a supplement of comprehensive practical knowledge—one specifically geared toward readers who are cooking for the first time, as well as toward curious cooks who need to fill in the inevitable blanks left by more personality-based or single-subject titles. We also wanted to give a sense of identity and perspective in our writing, since that’s what so many of our readers have loved about Joy over the decades. We tried to inject some of our own humor, opinions and personality throughout the book, much as Irma did. We want to inform and educate, but we don’t want to put people to sleep in the process!

“We try to assume as little as possible about our readers and their knowledge base. Whereas most titles are aimed at specific audiences, we deliberately try not to.”

What characteristics does the typical cook have in 2019 as opposed to 1931? What traits do they share?
We’re not sure we’re qualified to normatively define a “typical cook.” Such things are best left to historians, sociologists and cultural anthropologists. We know for a fact that we did not “focus group” this edition in any way. Actually, this is perhaps one of the more unique things about Joy: We try to assume as little as possible about our readers and their knowledge base. Whereas most titles are aimed at specific audiences, we deliberately try not to. This is definitely an unpopular marketing strategy, but we think the result will serve our readers well in the kitchen.

If we had to armchair it though, we would say that the biggest changes in our (potential) readership are:

1) Diversity: This country is less homogenous. Thus, our collective awareness of different cooking traditions is unprecedented.

2) Gender: Home cooking is not as gendered as it used to be.

3) Engagement: Modern food media is huge, social media is huge, and as a result cooks are more motivated, engaged and educated than ever before.

As far as what we share in common with cooks circa 1931: We all need to sustain ourselves and our loved ones, we all (to one degree or another) think of cooking as an act of caring, and we all need guidance and encouragement when we are learning how to cook.

Joy has been referred to as the kitchen Bible. How, like the Bible, can this cookbook inspire love, community and dedication?
We always find this analogy troubling . . . or perhaps the better word is thought-provoking. In what ways is our book like a religious text that purports to explain the ways of God to humanity? Do readers really feel like we are prescribing how they should eat? Is our book more of a new or old testament?

Speaking of new testaments, we can certainly attest that some readers invariably find the changes we make from edition to edition apocryphal. We get impassioned complaints, especially with regard to recipes we cut. My [John’s] father, Ethan, recalls an especially memorable haranguing over the omission of an orange chiffon frosting recipe. Just recently, we were hassled over the absence of schaumtorte. (It was cut in 2006, so don’t blame us!)

In some ways, comparing a comprehensive, beloved book to the Bible is apt: Both Joy and the Bible occupy a special place in the homes of countless families. Many copies of Joy get passed down, not unlike a family Bible. It’s a sort of kitchen talisman.

One funny (and touching) thing we have noticed after years of interacting with Joy fans: The majority of readers will insist theirs is the “original” edition. And for them, it feels that way. If your mother hands down her copy of Joy to you—stains, margin notes, recipe cards stuffed between the pages—it was, in a very real sense, hers (and now yours). Though Irma, Marion and the rest of our family may be Joy’s authors, readers are the ones who animate the book, who cook from it, who scrawl notes in it. In this way, people claim Joy as their own, which is not unlike how the devout internalize and interpret scripture. To us, it speaks to the (very humbling) place we occupy in the lives of families.

“We get impassioned complaints, especially with regard to recipes we cut. Just recently, we were hassled over the absence of schaumtorte. (It was cut in 2006, so don’t blame us!)”

For some, cooking is a form of art. For others, cooking is a way of science, experimentation and discovery. What is cooking for you?
It depends on our mood. Sometimes, we are animated by the idea of cooking as scientific inquiry—exploring new recipes, using an ingredient that is new to us. Other times, we are drawn into the kitchen with a fully formed idea that we want to realize (which we guess is a form of artistic self-expression?). Honestly though, we think both of these scenarios occur in our kitchen because of our profession. And even then, they do not characterize the majority of our time spent cooking.

As lifelong home cooks, we think of cooking as daily practice. Sure, it’s necessary for providing sustenance, but it’s also one of the essential ways we express care and affection for others (and ourselves). Experimentation and art seem to presuppose a beginning: resolving to shop for a new recipe, sourcing a special ingredient to try or experiencing a creative moment of ideation. Habitual cooking, however, is much more fluid and messy—guided by what’s on hand, what’s leftover and what we are able to fit into our lives.

For us, being able to confidently juggle time, ingredients on hand and appetites is a source of joy—one that is achievable and grounded rather than aspirational and perfectionist. Making cooking artistic and scientific can be motivational and enriching for ambitious cooks. However, for most of us (most of the time), lowering the stakes a bit leads to a much more enjoyable time in the kitchen. No need to stress about performing a test correctly or getting the brush strokes just right. Though if you can channel Bob Ross in the kitchen, by all means, follow your muse!

What was the first thing you ever cooked?
: My mother was teaching me to make omelets when I was 5 or 6. I would always add weird, inappropriate spices, and the eggs would not look like eggs anymore. (I’ve always had the “cooking as inquiry” bug.)

Megan: I don’t remember one specific thing, but from an early age I helped my mom get dinner on the table by doing small cooking tasks like making rice or cooking green beans. By the time I was 11 or 12, I was interested in more complex things. I remember one Thanksgiving around that time I made a pumpkin creme brulee that I was really proud of.

What is the biggest mistake you’ve made while cooking?
Aside from grotesquely colored omelets? Probably the time I tried to introduce my father to lamb saag and misread my own recipe—adding two tablespoons of ground cardamom instead of two teaspoons. It was borderline inedible. Still feeling shame from that one.

Megan: At Christmas when I was 14 years old, I wanted to make homemade croissants. Everything was going well until I put them in the oven. I didn’t realize that I should use a rimmed baking sheet, so some butter melted out of the croissants and pooled in the bottom of the oven, where it caught fire. My mom quickly put out the fire, and we were able to save the croissants, which turned out well, all things considered.

What is the biggest triumph you’ve had while cooking?
This is tough. From a logistical point of view, I remember working at a cafe in the mornings, when there were usually just two people working, a cook and a barista/cashier/server. On several occasions, the owners would ask the cook to help out at their catering business, leaving me alone to do everything. Attending to a flat top, serving a line of customers at a coffee counter and taking orders at tables was by far the most challenging kitchen-related multitask I’ve ever done successfully.

Aside from that, it’s hard to pick. Shredding my first smoked pork shoulder at a table of appreciative guests felt really good, and so did tasting my first exceptional ragu. Pulling off something successfully on the first attempt is always fulfilling and special. (This is why recipes are so important, even if “firing from the hip” is generally more fun.)

Megan: It’s not one single triumph, but learning how to make pies really well is one of my proudest accomplishments. There is definitely an art to making pastry crust and keeping it crisp and flaky. For me, nothing quite compares to pulling a perfectly baked pie out of the oven. Really, any kind of pastry project that turns out well makes you feel a little like a wizard.

What are some of the challenges today’s home cooks face, and how were those challenges addressed in this new edition of Joy?
Overcoming the initial reluctance to start cooking is the biggest challenge facing home cooks. (Or not getting discouraged after a failure or two.) We think this has held true throughout our publication history: Those first steps are the hardest.

And though there is much more enthusiasm for cooking today—as hobby, profession and entertainment/sport—we’re not sure these developments have done anything to quell the anxieties of novices. Expectations have risen, which has the potential to alienate and discourage. To varying degrees, food media invite cooks to compare their own efforts against those of professional chefs, to emulate them, to “cook like a pro.” The judgey, tense atmosphere of competition shows make a spectacle of kitchen failures. Though this may drive enrollment at culinary schools, secure advertising dollars for publications and raise ratings at television networks, we question the utility of this mindset (taken as a whole) for home cooks.

Long story short: We think the recent overexposure of cooking and the various narratives that have formed around how we celebrate, value and codify it have made it harder for people to participate, not easier. Chef means “boss,” the leader of a militaristic batterie de cuisine. Why are we referring to each other like that, and why are other titles—like “cook”—seen as less important?

In this edition, we have tried to forgo this mindset altogether and to invite readers to think of cooking as a good habit or a way of life, rather than as a performance to be judged. For Joy, this is nothing new. Since Irma [Rombauer] self-published the first edition, our family has tried to demystify and “deprofessionalize” cooking, to provide answers to as many questions as we possibly can, to address readers as fellow cooks and to enable rather than prescribe or dictate good taste.

“We think the recent overexposure of cooking and the various narratives that have formed around how we celebrate, value and codify it has made it harder for people to participate, not easier. . . . In this edition, we have tried to forgo this mindset altogether and to invite readers to think of cooking as a good habit or a way of life, rather than as a performance to be judged.”

How have your personalities—likes, dislikes, unique experiences and perspectives—found their way into the cookbook?
The new recipes we have included are certainly a record of our enthusiasms and taste. Beyond that, we have lived and breathed this book for nine years. Even if we wanted to, it would be hard to avoid reflecting our personalities in this book. Some specific things:

Spicy and “funky” stuff. Many of the recipes in the new edition do not shy away from the use of spicy and/or pungent ingredients. This is no accident! We love strong flavors, spices and chiles in all their forms.

Nerd-outs on meat cuts, veg and fruit varieties, ingredient info, preservation processes and fermentation. I (John) love researching subjects. I love digging for stuff, learning things, writing about them. (This is why I identify with Marion much more than Irma. Marion was the bookworm!) Though somewhat consuming, the opportunity to fact-check and expand upon the material Joy covers was a dream come true for me.

How does cooking give you joy?
When we’re in a certain mood, thinking of cooking as inquiry can be a lot of fun; conversely, if one of us has a “creation” worked out in our head, bringing it into the world can be very fulfilling. And, of course, being able to express care and gratitude for others by cooking for them is a source of joy for us.

Another joy-giving aspect of cooking that’s especially important for us: contemplation. There are some kitchen tasks that require your full attention—shelling beans, browning meats for a braise or ragu, peeling and cutting vegetables, to name a few—that, for us, are incredibly satisfying because they force you to slow down and just be in the moment. These are the same tasks that are supposed to be onerous, the ones home cooks have no time for, the prep steps that 30-minute-meal hawkers try to dispense with (or offer hacks to cope with).

We’re not always in the mood to be contemplative. Sometimes dinner just needs to get to the table ASAP. But for less stressful moments, there is little we like more than sharpening a knife, making sausage links, tending the fire of a smoker full of pork, stuffing an herb paste under the skin of a chicken or caramelizing onions. From our (slightly overwrought) headnote to the carmelized onions recipe:

The traditional method of slowly sweating the onions does not have to be burdensome. Think of it as a kitchen-bound lacuna in the story of your life, where contemplation and mindfulness can flourish as the onions slowly surrender their moisture and turn a deep bronze.

The kitchen can feel claustrophobic and chaotic, but sometimes it is truly a refuge!

What is something cooking gives you that nothing else can?
See the answer above! John hikes. Megan jogs and practices yoga. These activities are certainly relaxing and conducive to thought and stillness, but cooking can offer this and the opportunity to offer nourishment to others and yourself. A real twofer.

Cooking is also one of the few ways that the average person gets to create something with their hands. A lot of us have jobs where we sit at a computer and never really get the chance to be creative or to physically make something. Cooking is a skill that gives you an opportunity to flex creative muscles or to have the physical experience of making something tangible—and not only tangible but literally life-sustaining!

Which dishes from Joy should a starting-out cook try first?
John started with omelets, but it’s hard to go wrong with pancakes. They are the least intimidating and the easiest to execute, and they fall squarely under the “life skills” category. From there, we would say a batch of salsa or hummus (super low-key, no heat involved, demonstrates how you can save money by making staples from scratch). Moving on to orchestrating a whole meal: roast chicken and a big salad with scratch vinaigrette, or perhaps a spaghetti-and-meatball dinner with garlic bread, or a pot of jasmine rice and a batch of Thai curry (using store-bought paste). All of these are relatively simple recipes, and pulling them off will give beginners confidence and a rationale to keep it up (as in, “Hey, I could have spent a lot of money ordering this from a restaurant!”).

For an established cook—which dishes in Joy would pose a fun challenge?
Personally, we think the DIY-type recipes are the most fulfilling. Though some are not really all that complicated, they may require time to develop. Among them are: homemade pastrami, homemade bacon, homemade feta, merguez crepinettes, bratwurst, pork rinds, fermented hot sauce, kimchi, half-sour pickles, Calabrian-style chiles and nocino.

Some things that are involved but less DIY: cassoulet (using homemade duck confit if you have the time), Sichuan hotpot (simple but a bit of a production), goat birria, chicken makhini masala, pelmeni, fatayer bi sabanekh, ciabatta, kouign amann, cannelés de Bordeaux, macarons and honeycomb candy.

Which recipe is your personal favorite?
This is such a tough question for us. There are so many! My favorite right now: lasagna made with fresh semolina pasta. A fall chill is in the air, and baked pasta feels like the answer. In a month, it will probably be khao soi gai, asopao de pollo, or maybe mapo dofu.

Megan: One recipe I keep coming back to is the olive oil cake. I make it whenever we have dinner guests because it’s such a simple cake but has an amazing flavor. I’m from the South, and this cake reminds me of pound cake but with an Italian twist. It also goes with any seasonal fruit, from macerated strawberries in the spring to roasted pears in the fall to citrus segments in winter. I usually serve it with whipped cream, too.

How does Irma Rombauer’s legacy live on in your family?
John: Well, every 10 years or so, we publish this big book. 🙂

No, actually, my family really does live this book. My mother recently showed me Marion’s working copy of the 1975 edition. There were marked pages and notes about things to change in the next edition. This might seem rather normal, but keep in mind that Marion passed away within two years of the book’s release. She was already planning the next edition before the ink on the last one had dried!

That was a real moment of recognition—of one obsessive seeing the work of another and feeling a kinship. Before my mother showed me Marion’s edit copy, Megan and I had already started making notes on things we wish we had been able to add to our edition and would like to incorporate into the 100th anniversary edition.

In other words, Joy is the “how.” I never had the privilege of meeting Marion or Irma, but I feel like I know and understand them by working on this book. I can see a recipe and know who added it, or read an anecdote and recognize who wrote it. In much the same way as our readers find a connection to their families through this cookbook, so have I.

Author photo © Pableaux Johnson.

Get the Book

Joy of Cooking

Joy of Cooking

By John Becker & Megan Scott
ISBN 9781501169717

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