Stand Facing the Stove

by Anne Mendelson

1996. 474 pages.

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The truth is out: Irma Rombauer, the woman who brought us The Joy of Cooking, was not a very good cook! I had no idea that behind the solid, stolid pages of America's cooking classic was such an fascinating and often surprising history. In Stand Facing the Stove  Anne Mendelson tells the story of Joy of Cooking and its creators, Irma Rombauer and her daughter, Marion Becker.

The story has the kind of dramatic elements that are the stuff of  good novels. It is set (in St. Louis) against the dramatic historical span of time: from the turn of the century to the 1970's. The story has charismatic and headstrong heroines in both Irma Rombauer and her daughter Marion. In classic novel form, it has a precipitous turning point: when Irma's husband committed suicide she had to fend for herself financially for the first time. The story takes us through Irma's against-all-odds success with Joy of Cooking.  And what odds she faced! Rombauer was an absolute amateur; she entered the publishing business in the depths of the Depression (1931); she published Joy herself with the last of her savings. (Bobbs-Merrill became Joy's publisher a few years later, a business relationship that would be as enduring as it was rancorous.)

Ironically, it was her amateur status which lead to her success. Most cookbooks of that day were somber affairs filled with traditional, time-consuming recipes and written by condescending, authoritative authors. Irma's vivacious, friendly personality burst off the page as she shared recipes, anecdotes and sound advice. Yes, Joy of Cooking had traditional recipes, but what women particularly liked were the easier, streamlined recipes which acknowledged that women had better things to do than just cooking (this was certainly Rombauer's personal sentiment).Women across America identified with this cookbook and its author. Irma Rombauer was one of them.

If Stand Facing the Stove were a novel it would have ended when Joy of Cooking finally triumphed as America's cooking bible during World War II. But this isn't a novel, and Mendelson continues meticulous chronicling of the story long after the main drama of the story has past, ending with Marion's death in 1974. It's clear that unending difficulties with Joy's publisher were major source of frustration in the Rombauer/Becker's lives. Still, I wish Mendelson hadn't spent so much of the book recounting bad contracts, unjust dealings, and indifferent editors. It's as if she were Rombauer's and Becker's defense lawyer setting out a water tight case to the reader to prove that they were royally screwed by Bobbs-Merrill. (I believe you! I believe you! Enough already!) On the other hand, I was grateful when Mendelson applied her research skills elsewhere, especially as she showed the evolving social history of cooking and cookbooks in America, a fascinating window on the changing times and how Joy of Cooking came to be a standard fixture in kitchens across America.

A new edition of Joy of Cooking has recently been published with much fanfare. This edition's development budget was $5 million; its  its content was shaped by over100 people: food professionals, marketing experts, and focus groups. That's quite a contrast from the book's beginnings when a widowed middle-aged homemaker decided to write a cookbook.