During the 1930s, salespeople went door to door to peddle their wares, desperately trying to make enough cash to get through the Great Depression. One of them was a St. Louis woman with greying hair and a booklet to hawk named Irma Starkloff Rombauer. She was no traditional saleswoman, and her product was no ordinary title. It was the first edition of The Joy of Cooking, a book that would change the way generations of Americans cook.
Rombauer had no formal culinary experience, no publishing experience and no sales background. So how did she translate her booklet on cooking into an American institution? The answer can be found in a tragedy, a financial fix and one housewife’s gritty determination.
Born to a German family in Missouri in 1877, Irma Starkloff studied fine arts and spent her early years in Europe and the United States, enjoying high society, refined culture, and becoming what she called “an artist of life.” As the wife of St. Louis attorney and politician Edgar Rombauer, she did plenty of entertaining, but cooking wasn’t her forte. Instead, the lively hostess prided herself on offering a warm home and great conversation to her guests.
Then, disaster struck the nation—and Rombauer. In 1929, the stock market crash plunged the United States into an economic depression that bled the life savings and investments of many American families. Unbeknownst to Rombauer, her family would be one of them. Her husband of 30 years, who had suffered from periodic bouts of mental illness, killed himself in February 1930.
A stunned Rombauer realized she was near financial ruin. She had just $6,000 in stocks to her name. Her son didn’t live at home, and her daughter was about to marry, leaving Rombauer alone in her household. She needed something to occupy her mourning mind—and money to help her live through the lean Depression years.
Rombauer thought fast. She remembered the cooking class she had taught a decade earlier to a church group. Her best dishes were desserts—a reflection of her duties as a society hostess, which revolved around genteel conversation over a slice of cake and a cup of coffee. She had compiled some recipes for the class, and wondered what she could do with them. At a small inn in Michigan, she came up with the concept that would become The Joy of Cooking.
The cookbook she imagined was different from anything else out there. At the time, most recipe books were dull and complex, and useful information for cooks of average skill levels was sparse. Life at home was changing for American women, too—with the Great Depression, domestic help became less common, and new household conveniences meant that the days of full staffs for upper- and middle-class women were over.
Rombauer envisioned a book that was friendly, not stuffy, that helped women develop their cooking skills with the help of a chatty, encouraging companion. Though her family was initially shocked to hear of her plan to invest half of her remaining money into a cookbook—“Irma’s a terrible cook,” a family member supposedly said in response—they slowly signed on to help.
Her daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, assisted with testing recipes. Family members and friends collected promising recipes, and Irma made sure to add personal favorites, like her beloved linzer torte and coffee cake. Slowly, a cookbook took shape.
The Joy of Cooking made its debut in 1931 with an edition of 3,000 books. Initially, the book was self-published, sold to friends and family, and hawked door to door by its energetic author. But its light-hearted take on cooking—the concept of “joy” being part of the kitchen was nearly unheard of at the time—soon garnered a wider audience.
By 1936, the book was popular enough to attract a mainstream publisher, this time with a groundbreaking new format that laid out the ingredients and step-by-step recipe instructions. (Known as the “action method,” it’s used in most cookbooks today.) By the 1940s, The Joy of Cooking was a bestseller and had been published in multiple editions. Rombauer continued to update her book, adding quick recipes that used convenient new products, like cans of condensed cream of mushroom soup, and adapting recipes for World War II rationing.
However, Rombauer’s initial contract with publisher Bobbs-Merrill had been signed before she had much business experience, and it was skewed heavily in the publisher’s favor. As a result, she had to battle for every edit and push for better royalties as the book became popular. Rombauer, then in her seventies, turned to her daughter for support. Becker signed on, and the mother-daughter duo became co-authors. (Marion Rombauer Becker would continue to edit the cookbook until the 1975 edition.)
In her later life, Rombauer experienced a series of strokes and relied more and more on her daughter, who turned the book into the more comprehensive look at cooking techniques that it remains today. But even as Rombauer’s health deteriorated, her wit and voice continued to shine.
Irma Rombauer died in 1962 at age 84. By then, she was a national celebrity. Today, the book she self-published as a Depression-era widow is considered a kind of bible of American cooking. People obsess over finding old editions, pass dog-eared copies from parent to child, and give the book a prized place on their kitchen shelves.
With over 18 million copies in print, The Joy of Cooking has a place in countless American kitchens—and stomachs. And all because a feisty woman decided it was time to overcome her grief, support herself, and spread a little joy by helping others learn to cook.