What is the family history of a cookbook like The Joy of Cooking? The co-authoring of the All Purpose Cookbook (Fifth Edition, Fourth Revision)—not unusual, especially for a cross-generational book—is an utterly unkempt set of trajectories. In this instance it involves Irma S. Rombauer and her daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Marion’s husband, John. The 1963 edition was the first paperback edition of the cookbook, and it was the first that Irma’s daughter, Marion, revised without being able to consult her mother, who had had a series of strokes beginning in 1955. When the book first went to press (in 1962), it went without the family knowing it and without a contract. The publisher, Bobbs-Merrill, had “instructed Alice Richardson ‘to edit the Beckers’ edited galleys, but the Beckers are not to know about this.’” Marion did not learn that it was in stores until she was told by someone attending her mother’s wake. The book was filled with typos that made it impossible to execute, though not to imagine, a number of the recipes, which transpired both indoors and out and offered instructions as if no difference existed between amateurs and professional chefs. Thus Joy is notable not just for recipes but detailed physical instructions in how anyone can learn to “grind their own peanut butter, purify drinking water, build and cook on a campfire, roll out a pie crust with a Coke bottle, use vinegar as a bleaching agent, and clean a whole octopus.” And so the corrupt edition of this book is an imaginative how-to exercise and a collector’s item. The Joy is a porous and experimental text, and its organizational structure is fulfilled by a simple instruction about its own reading: “In using the Index look for a noun rather than an adjective.” So in other words, the Joy tells you how to read, and thus how to cook. Barbeque, or “Pit Cooking,” is absorbed in a long methodological section entitled “The Foods We Heat.” I remember one summer coating the underside of a pot with liquid Dove to make the soot come off easier. Like the heat section in Joy, a work of literature ought to tell you how to make the wind blow through the V-shape in a barbeque pit.
Marion officially disowned the 1962 edition, so mistake filled was it in its instructions and ingredients. A book that goes through multiple and garbled editions has all sorts of unfulfilled lives in it and attached to it, and most beautiful books come to resemble the inaccurate recipes, unacknowledged rhubarb stains, and foliage pressed between those pages that a reader is forced, by the historical circumstances of cooking in America, to read. Many of the unfinished dishes in the Joy are simply unimaginable. The adjective “Chinese” is followed by seven nouns: celery, chestnuts, dressing, egg rolls, meatballs, rice (fried), and sauce (sweet-sour). Every book I have come to read since Joy bears a family resemblance to the 1963 and 1975 and 1987 versions, whose endlessly interchangeable modular arrangements and rearrangements of recipes, like so many leaves on a tree or rooms in a house, are held together by something like the false appearance of sunlight through a window. A book will not boil the ocean or make Chinese cooking appear in one’s childhood. What does the idea of cooking come from? A few people writing down recipes and talking about a room or a relative who no longer exists. John, Marion’s husband, had a significant role in the book, but he inhabits the sidelines, like many people, often wives, who help produce books and are forgotten. But the writing of a book never ends with a life. In this case, it is John, the husband, who is not acknowledged on the front cover.
Joy has what marketers might call “extreme relevance” for me. I grew up Chinese American in southeast Ohio: it was, I think, the only cookbook (although now, come to think of it, there was also a Betty Crocker cookbook with a red plaid cover), in our house, and so it was a culinary Bible of things that are eaten in America. I mean my mother did not know how to cook at all when she first got to America from Shanghai (I think her family had a cook, as was common at the time for a family with some means) and my father, who cooked very well, could only cook Chinese food from Fuzhou. But of course we lived in southeast Ohio in the ’60s and were thus American, and to be American, well you have to eat American, and to eat American, you have to cook it from time to time. Ninety-five percent of the food we ate in our house from that era was originally Chinese, in intent and presentation. The other four percent (we shopped at Kroger’s and A&P) was what fell under the category of “exotic”: American food that came out of boxes: Rice-A-Roni, Noodles Romanoff, Sloppy Joes, etc.—basically snacklike foods that looked like an American home-cooked dinner if you added hot water. So convenience food was a misnomer really; it was not really the food that was becoming more convenient, it was us who slowly became a family of convenience starting around 1962 with a corrupt edition of a cookbook. Certainly, one (and only one) cookbook taught my mother how to read in English. And you have to remember that my mother at the time was finishing her doctoral dissertation at the University of Washington as she was learning to cook. The dissertation, completed in 1965, was titled: “Tradition and Innovation in Modern Chinese Poetry.”
Any food that did not come from a box (i.e. the remaining one percent) came from The Joy of Cooking, so it was an extremely important manual for our family in terms of reverse engineering. As an appliance like the kitchen hood my father installed to take the smells of (mostly Chinese) cooking and put them outside our house, the Joy and its use was technologically limited because my mother and father did not really know what American food “was” and so did not really know whether they “liked” it. I mean really, what “was” American food in 1965? Was it even “likeable?” So it was mainly my sister and I who ended up with our hands on the cookbook, and now find ourselves reading in a protracted and desultory love affair with the book. We used the cookbook to make popovers, muffins, and brandied cakes—mainly because Chinese cuisine does not have an extensive repertoire of desserts or alcohol. So The Joy of Cooking really is, and remains, a very important document in our household about the split between Eastern first course and Western dessert, between wet steam and dry heat, olives and tea leaves, and English breakfast and Oriental dinner. I made my first apple pie with that book. For some unknown reason, I look at the book and think of daylight savings time in the town I grew up in. So Joy is a cross-pollinated ecosystem, an agrarian system with a very beautiful table of contents and pen-and-ink drawings of foods and the hands that make those foods. It reminds me of the farm my family owned in the mid-’70s and the pots my father used to make in his studio. It is a classic example of a book that gets revised by the lives that are in turn revised around and by it, and I think that it, like all books, is beautiful only in regard to the decompressions it has been put to. I have told this story, at greater length, and probably with somewhat more remorse, in Our Feelings Were Made by Hand. There is no real distinction between what I am writing now and what I will be writing next. This anecdote is about the untimed apparatus of a novel, which will appear “shortly.” It’s the clock part of a novel.