QUESTION: I love to cook. Recently, I found an old copy of The Joy of Cooking with a copyright date of 1936. I’ve already made some of the recipes in it, and they’re just as good today as they were back then. What can you tell me about this cookbook? Is it valuable?
ANSWER: You found one of the first commercially published copies of The Joy of Cooking. Its author, Irma von Starkloff Rombauer, self-published it at first in 1931, something many cookbook authors have done ever since before being discovered by a major publisher. It became an instant success and a commercial publisher picked it up and published a much larger quantity in 1936. While this edition isn’t worth as much as a copy of Farmer’s self-published one, it’s nevertheless a classic.
According to historians, Archestratus, a Greek philosopher who lived around 350 B.C.E, wrote the world’s first cookbook. But the earliest surviving one, De Re Coquinaria, or On Cookery, attributed to a first century Roman gourmet named Apicius, who believed in the extensive use of fresh herbs and seasonings, dates to 100 A.D. Republished in London in 1958, it’s even more relevant today.
The first American cookbook, The Complete Housewife, or Accomplish 'd Gentlewoman's Companion, published in Williamsburg, didn’t appear until 1742. And for the following 100 years, cookbook authors targeted their books to trained chefs with lots of helpers. It wasn’t until 1845 in London that Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery for Private Families provided a basic cookbook for the everyday housewife.
A few years later, Sarah Willis, best known by the pseudonym of Fanny Fern, wrote that famous quote, "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach."
Nevertheless, other writers took her quote to heart and produced their own cookbooks. Cookbooks with titles such as The Young Wife's Own Cook Book by Mrs. Jane Warren , How to Cook a Husband and Other Things, by Puritan Millers, and 15 Ways to a Man's Heart by Betty Crocker, began to appear on bookstore shelves.
While each of these women may have found the way to a man's heart, Fannie Merritt Farmer found the key to the heart of the American public. Farmer graduated from the Boston Cooking School in 1889, and in 1891, she began serving as its director, a position she held until 1902. It was then she opened Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery, focused on training housewives and nurses.
Farmer was an early advocate of accurate measurement in recipes. While she’s best known for editing The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, published in 1896, The book's publisher (Little, Brown & Company) did not predict good sales and limited the first edition to 3,000 copies, which Farmer had to pay for herself. The book was so thorough and comprehensive that it became an instant hit in America. Cooks would refer to later editions simply as the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, which is still available in print over a century later.
Another mainstay of the cookbook world is The Joy of Cooking. In 1931, recently widowed Irma von Starkloff Rombauer needed a way to support her family, and self-published The Joy of Cooking: A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat., She had only 3,000 copies printed, making first editions very rare. Today, one sells for over $1,500, and the addition of an original dust jacket raises the cost further.
Rombauer's The Joy of Cooking was a huge success. In1936, Bobbs-Merrill Company published it commercially featured both Irma Rombauer and her daughter, Marion Becker, as co-authors. Today, serious cooks acknowledge it to be the first cookbook to list ingredients in order of use, followed by a list of chronological instructions.
The Joy of Cooking has also never been out of print, although the book did undergo major revisions in 1975 and 1997.