There's a reason it's been in print since the 30s: No kitchen is complete without this cherished classic.

By David McCann
January 06, 2021
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Along with, I’m sure, many others in this country, my first cookbook was Joy of Cooking. It was given to me by my parents as they sent me off to university many many years ago. Last time I counted, I had — wait for it — over 1000 cookbooks. And the one I still refer to multiple times a week? Yep, Irma Rombauer’s self-published masterpiece. Why? And why is it still the “guilty pleasure” I find in the homes of so many people I know in the food world?

As a way to assuage grief and pay the bills after her husband's death, Mrs. Rombauer compiled and self published a small volume of recipes in 1931. It sold out so quickly that she began expanding it and looking for a publisher. In 1936, her newly enlarged Joy of Cooking was presented to the world. It has not been out of print since then, selling over 18,000,000 copies in over 9 editions.

What is the magic Mrs. Rombauer managed to capture? Why do so many people love and trust this book?

I think that the most important touch of magic is the tone. It’s as conversational as being in the kitchen with your mother or grandmother. It never feels like the author is talking down to you. Don’t know how to boil an egg? She’ll tell you… because she understands what it’s like to cook for the first time. And she won’t assume you know everything there is to know about the kitchen, because she’s been where you are and knows just how it feels. 

In the best sense of the word, this is a basic cookbook. And, I believe, that Rombauer’s “basic” tone is the reason so many of us keep this book around, using it regularly. There is no basic kitchen technique that she can’t help you with. The prose and the structure combine to make you feel like you’re in a comfortable cooking class for one — designed only for you. And taught by a friend.

The other bit of magic? The recipes work seamlessly. That should be a given, but you'd be surprised by how many cookbook recipes simply don't.

Credit: Courtesy Amazon

Buy It: Joy of Cooking (Hardcover, $50.99, amazon.com)

Over the 9 editions, there have been attempts (some wonderful, and some not so wonderful) to make Joy of Cooking a little less basic, and the tone more “professional.” Thankfully, the glorious new edition (2019) has mostly gone back to Mrs. Rombauer’s style, with a few updates and some new recipes. 

So, why do I refer to it as a “guilty pleasure?” I think a lot of food professionals, like everyone, want to be on the cutting edge — extolling the “next big thing.” But the incredibly solid base, and welcoming, relaxed tone of this cookbook make it a must-have even if it isn’t the sexy newcomer.

I proudly admit that, though I have been cooking and writing about food for ages, I constantly return to Joy of Cooking. And many of my “food professional” friends agree. I remember the glee on people’s faces when the latest edition arrived at Food & Wine magazine. Everyone in the office was clamoring for access to the copies sitting on an editor's desk. (And this was a room filled with hard core NYC food fanatics.) That’s quite a compliment to this humble cookbook that started out almost 90 years ago as a way out of a very tough situation. 

No matter how accomplished you are in the kitchen, I feel pretty confident in saying that every kitchen needs a little JOY! As a matter of fact, I have 7 copies.

This story originally appeared on allrecipes.com