"Worst idea I ever heard of," was what Irma Rombauer's family had to say when she set out in 1930, after her husband's suicide, to write a cookbook. "Irma's a TERRIBLE cook." But the resulting work, "The Joy of Cooking," which Rombauer self-published the following year, went on to sell more than 14 million hardcover and paperback copies over six decades; it stands today as the most influential cookbook in American history.
In "Stand Facing the Stove," Anne Mendelson, a food writer and culinary historian, has set out to chronicle the unlikely story behind the success of "The Joy of Cooking." The result is a dual biography of Rombauer and her daughter, eventual co-author and successor, Marion Rombauer Becker, as well as a publishing history of the book itself and a richly detailed examination of the evolution of American cooking from the mid-19th century to the 1970s. The latter's the most interesting. In two separate chapters -- the book's best -- Mendelson traces the cultural history of American home cooking, and in the process helps to explain the reasons for the classic cookbook's endurance: Rombauer's status as "a culinary amateur ... frankly bored with a lot of the solemn stuff that the competition expounded under the guise of culinary education." Rombauer was, Mendelson successfully argues, "the first cookbook writer who had been able to give the disorderly spectacle of modern American cooking some coherence through sheer force of personality."
That force of personality is sadly absent from the biographical portions of "Stand Facing the Stove," however. The family history -- cultured middle-class Germans from St. Louis, loving battles between mother and daughter, etc. -- is tangled and contradictory. After her husband blows his head off (his motive is unclear), Rombauer needs cash and decides -- that simply, it would appear -- to write a cookbook. "It was not a terribly practical plan," Mendelson tells us, "but it matched her view of her position in society."
Dry publishing history follows. "Joy" did well as a vanity project, and Rombauer took it to a commercial publisher, Bobbs-Merrill, with which the family had a difficult relationship. Becker initially helped out only with the page design; later she was liaison to the publisher and in 1951 became the book's steward -- redefining it, rewriting it, ensuring its legacy.
Which is, it's worth pointing out, rich and important: students of the cultural history of American cuisine will find that "Stand Facing the Stove" offers a top-notch examination of the evolution of American home-cooking. Other readers should stick with the primary text -- which is far more joyful, and far more revealing.