ST. LOUIS — How do you rework a classic? How do you refresh a masterpiece?
“We try to be mindful and respectful,” said John Becker.
With his wife, Megan Scott, Becker has written a new version of “Joy of Cooking,” perhaps America’s most influential cookbook ever. The original version was written by St. Louisan Irma S. Rombauer, and it has been an iconic work of culinary wisdom ever since.
Much of what America knows about food it learned from “Joy of Cooking.”
Becker, 40, is Rombauer’s great-grandson. The book has always been something of a family effort. When Rombauer died in 1962 (she’s buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery), responsibility for writing the revisions and new editions fell to her daughter Marion Rombauer Becker, John Becker’s grandmother.
Becker’s father, Ethan Becker, was in charge of the editions published in 1997 and 2006. Those two editions, which have long been scorned by readers, are still a sore spot in the family.
“There was a rough period in our publication,” Becker said from his home in Portland, Ore. “We were kind of jostled around. Our publisher was Macmillan for around 15 years. Macmillan was convinced that my father was someone they wanted to muscle out as much as they could. It ended up that there wasn’t an edition for 22 years.”
But then it got worse. The new publisher, Scribner, hired the highly regarded cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli to run the show. Guarnaschelli hired a huge phalanx of chefs, recipe testers and experts in their field to work on the project.
“She wanted to do what I guess you could call a corporate edition,” Becker said. The information was all there, but “there was a lack of continuity as far as the voice was concerned. It was less conversational.”
It wasn’t just the lighthearted charm of the previous versions that was absent. Many of the chapters that the new staff deemed of insufficient interest — canning, frozen desserts, cocktails and more — were also gone in their entirety.
A 2006 edition, which was printed in celebration of the book’s 75th anniversary, restored much of those missing chapters and attempted to reinstate the familiar friendly tone of the original writing. As its starting point, it began with the 1975 edition, the last one written by Marion Rombauer Becker.
For this new edition, the ninth, Becker and Scott started out by testing recipes in the 2006 edition.
“But because I wanted to make things difficult for us, I wanted to do a genealogy that traced back how each recipe changed over the editions,” he said with a laugh.
Some of the recipes were easy to trace: They kept the same names, or at least were featured in the same chapters.
The recipe long known as Pommes Anna, for instance, began as a dish called Sliced Potato Pie. The details did not change much over the years, but Becker and Scott ended up making a major tweak. The recipe always called for Yukon Gold potatoes, which are not as starchy as Russet potatoes. Becker and Scott predicted the dish would physically hold together better using Russets for that reason.
They tried it both ways, and now Russets are recommended in the new edition.
Of course, hundreds of recipes have been added or removed from the various revisions and editions over the decades, and the new book’s writers had to decide which ones to drop and which ones from the past they wanted to bring back.
How do you refresh a masterpiece?
Their research turned up a recipe that had only appeared in the 1960s, for Rum Chocolate Mousse. That one made it back into the 2019 book. So did a recipe for a chicken casserole, and one for Fig Spice Cake — though ‘we ended up adapting that one heavily,” Becker said.
And what about the new recipes to include? Becker and Scott were guided by their own preferences for things like Thai food.
One new recipe is for St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake. “We added it in this edition because it is Irma’s hometown. We added it because how could we not have this delicious thing from her hometown?” Becker said.
The process of discarding old recipes was much more painful than deciding which new ones to include, he said. Every recipe has a story, every recipe has its followers.
“A lot of the feedback we’ve received from readers has been incredibly touching and encouraging. I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t anticipate how deeply it would make me feel a kinship with strangers,” he said.
“It drove home the weight of the responsibility of doing the revision. I feel like we have a relationship with the readers that not a lot of other cookbooks do. We are a generational cookbook.”