From Tragedy to Triumph: The Monumental Mid-Life of Irma S. Rombauer

Irma with her children circa 1914. Photo courtesy of Stand Facing the Stove by Anne Mendelson.

Long before Irma Rombauer became a household name, she was an everywoman of the early 1900’s living in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband and two children. As the wife of an attorney who had political aspirations, Irma was actively involved in the social scene of St. Louis, a well-connected member of various clubs and organizations and a fun hostess of house parties and local events.

St Louis in 1906, seven years after Irma married. Photo courtesy of Vintage Everyday

When the stock market crashed and her husband tragically committed suicide as a result, the rosy colors of Irma’s St. Louis lifestyle suddenly took on a whole new shade. Without much money in savings, Irma, now in her early 50’s, had to quickly figure out what to do. Most importantly, she had to figure out how to survive on her own and care for her family, as a single woman, after thirty years of marriage.

While the Great Depression was a very hard time financially for families around the country, it was also a very creative period in home cooking. As everyone struggled to survive and to feed their families, barriers started breaking down as far as people’s pre-conceived notions of kitchen work and culinary skills. The wealthy could no longer afford kitchen staff and therefore had to start cooking for themselves. The middle class no longer had the same budget for groceries and had to learn how to cook more frugally.  And the lower class had to stretch their meager food supplies even further. That meant a whole wave of new cooks were beginning to emerge. Cooks who needed answers on how to do new things whether it was learning basic skills, innovative recipes or new techniques.

Irma saw an opportunity here in this great depression of both her own and the country’s. Americans needed a practical, instructive cookbook that offered good nutritional food for all budgets and all skill levels. Assume nothing, teach everything and most importantly find the joy, those were the thoughts ruminating in Irma’s mind.  This cookbook idea seemed especially relevant after a fellow St Louisan published a cookbook in 1929  featuring all sorts of expensive ingredients and decadent dishes – a notion that seemed totally inappropriate to Irma for both the time and the town.

The funny thing about Irma though at this point in her life, was that she wasn’t exactly known for her cooking. Her parties with her husband in the past had been memorable – not for the food but for the atmosphere. While Irma herself was a dynamic hostess and an interesting, intelligent conversationalist, what she served was overshadowed by her charming personality. People didn’t come away from Irma’s kitchen raving about her food but instead raving about Irma.  So the very idea that Irma would embark, could embark, on writing a cookbook, as just a sort-of-okay meal maker, was a great surprise to everyone who knew her. But none of that mattered. Irma had a plan in mind that was going to turn her kitchen from dull to delicious.

One of the groups Irma belonged to was The Wednesday Club where women gathered to discuss intellectually stimulating topics. Photo courtesy of wednesdayclubstlouis.org

Because she was so well connected and knew a lot of people in her community, Irma started collecting recipes from her friends and their families. Recipes that were proven hand-me-downs, time-honored and beloved. Once gathered, she went home and tested each recipe herself… adapting, tweaking, altering and omitting along the way if needed. When a satisfactory bundle of approved recipes emerged that suited her taste, she organized them into book form, named it The Joy of Cooking: A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat and had 3,000 copies printed up by a local print shop. Tah-dah, the Joy of Cooking was born.

Irma mailed out copies of the cookbook from home and handled publicity and sales campaigns herself, enthusiastically spreading the joy of Joy.  The rest is cooking history. Bobbs-Merrill picked up professional publishing of the book in 1936 with the debut of the second edition. Irma became a trusted authority known for her reliable recipes and engaging writing style.  And the book went on to sell 18 million copies across eight updated editions. Covering everything from how to skin a squirrel to how to make a souffle, Joy of Cooking raised a nation of home cooks (18 million of them!) by assuming nothing, teaching everything and finding the joy.

All the editions of Joy of Cooking through the years and a photo of Irma and her daughter Marion, who worked on many of the cookbooks.

That is a wonderful contribution to the American food scene. At a time when women could have felt marginalized by their roles as domestic cooks, Irma made cooking exciting and delicious and easily attainable. Her cookbooks turned into confidence and that confidence radiated into all other aspects of life.  Rumor has it that a new addition is scheduled for publication in 2019, edited and updated by the  Rombauer family, who have faithfully handled the cookbook and its revisions since Irma’s death in 1962.  Thanks to Irma’s children and her grandchildren, they have made the Joy of Cooking a record holder as the oldest cookbook in history that is still maintained by one family.  A legacy that hopefully will keep Irma in our kitchens for another 80 years.

Cheers to the Rombauer family and to Irma, in particular, who would have celebrated her 141st birthday today, and cheers to always finding the joy in both good times and bad.

Looking for your own vintage edition of Joy Of Cooking? Find two ediions currently available in the shop – one from 1967 here and one from 1975 here. And if you missed the previous blog post, catch up with a recipe for Irma’s Plum Cake Cockaigne here.