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The Joy of Self-Publishing: Irma Rombauer’s Legacy

Irma S. Rombauer, image courtesy of Wikipedia

Irma Rombauer made a certified American home staple when she published “The Joy of Cooking.” After losing her husband to suicide the year prior, Rombauer had 3,000 copies of her book printed and sold by a company that had never published a book.

After nine editions with updated recipes, “The Joy of Cooking” is considered the most famous American cookbook.

About the Author and Book:

Irma Starkloff was born to German immigrants in 1877 St. Louis, Missouri. She married a lawyer named Edgar Rombauer in 1899. However, after suffering a bout of depression in 1930, Edgar Rombauer committed suicide, promptly leaving Irma as a widow at the age of 52, where she was left with only $6,000 total in savings.

Rombauer’s children encouraged their mothers to compile her recipes and thoughts on cooking to help cope with her loss. Since then, Rombauer worked on the initial drafts of the book, which would later become the first edition of “The Joy of Cooking.”

With her late husband’s secretary, she began writing and editing recipes and commentaries while researching more recipes around St. Louis.

During the autumn of 1930, Rombauer approached the A.C. Clayton Printing Company, a printer for the city’s shoe manufacturers. After paying the publisher $3,000, she could have 3,000 copies of her cookbook printed and sold.

The first edition of the cookbook was a success. 1932 the author began seeking a new publisher to publish her work. Unfortunately for Rombauer, she was rejected multiple times before the Bobbs-Merrill Company eventually offered her a contract. The Joy of Cooking’s second edition had some expanded recipes, many of which were presented in a conversational approach now known as the “action method.”

This unique presentation of recipes blending narratives, ingredients, and examples resonated with many readers. In addition to Bobbs-Merrill marketing the book heavily, the second edition became a success.

The conflict between author and publisher:

While Rombauer managed to get her tried-and-tested recipes published by a new publisher, there were still some conflicts.

One such conflict was Bobbs-Merrill’s inexperience with publishing cookbooks at the time. Inexperienced with publishers, Rombauer negotiated on the terms without an agent or lawyer. One stipulation of the contract between the two parties was that Bobbs-Merrill had copyright to the book’s 1936 and 1931 versions. This stipulation resulted in many years of conflict between the author and the publisher.

Future editions:

Since then, The Joy of Cooking has undergone many editions, including newer recipes for American households. The third edition included tips on how readers can deal with wartime rationing restrictions while providing alternatives to some ingredients in other recipes. It also had recipes from Streamlined Cooking, another recipe of collection from Rombauer which included recipes that could be made in thirty minutes or less.

Before the publication of the fourth edition, Rombauer’s health was beginning to decline. Not wanting Bobbs-Merrill to replace her with another author should she be unable to continue, Rombauer made it a point to ensure the book stays a family legacy. To achieve this goal, she negotiated a clause in her contract where she named her daughter the sole successor of any future revisions of her work.

The fourth edition was the first one, where Marion Rombauer Becker was listed as a co-author, and she received 40% of the royalties. However, tensions between the authors and publisher remained when both mother and daughter resisted the publisher’s wish to illustrate the book with photographs. The fourth edition also included new healthy recipes from Becker, many of which emphasized whole grains and fresh produce. The edition also introduced modern appliances, such as the blender, into the mix.

The fifth edition was published in the year of Rombauer’s death. However, this version was released without Becker’s consent. Future releases of the fifth edition required massive corrections as Becker exchanged copies per her request.

Unlike the other editions, the fifth version was in paperback format and remains widely available in used bookstores.

The book’s sixth edition in 1975 was the last to be edited by Becker and remains the book’s most popular edition. With over 4,300 recipes, it became a staple in many American kitchens, including sections like hiking and ingredient substitutions.

The seventh edition, 1997, resulted in a drastic change as Simon & Shuster. This publisher owned the book’s copyrights and hired cookbook editors for a revamp. After removing the previous version’s conversational first-person narration, the seventh edition was ghostwritten by multiple chefs into a comprehensive cookbook.

The eighth edition of “The Joy of Cooking” celebrated the book’s 75th anniversary. This version removed much of the predecessor’s professionalism as it returned to more uncomplicated recipes, including new ones with ready-made ingredients like canned soup and store-bought dumplings. It also includes an index named “Joy Classics,” listing 35 recipes created between 1931 to 1975.

The ninth edition in 2019 includes 600 new recipes. John Becker, Rombauer’s great-grandson, and his wife are responsible for the latest updates.

What Can We Learn from Irma Rombauer?

Rombauer didn’t set out to become an author after becoming widowed. Nevertheless, through her children’s encouragement, she could cope with her loss by publishing her recipes through creative narratives. This style of writing resonated with many readers in the middle class who were doing most of the cooking for the family.

Rombauer’s conversational style and casual discussions made her book stand out from other cookbooks at the time. The latter contained plenty of complicated recipes not readily replicable by an average cook.

While Rombauer managed to take some risks when self-publishing her book, her inexperience with traditional publishers made it difficult for her to present her book the way she wanted, nevertheless, she fought hard to keep her work a family legacy, which remains in the Rombauer-Becker family.

The Bottomline: While Rombauer’s journey from self-publisher to traditionally published wasn’t easy, the enduring legacy of her cookbook has inspired countless cooks worldwide, including world-renowned chefs like Julia Child.

As America slowly introduces newer food practices and appliances, it seems undeniable that future editions of “The Joy of Cooking” will become possible, thus, ensuring that Rombauer’s legacy lives on through her descendants.


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