‘The Joy of Cooking’ is a reference book

“The Joy of Cooking” is a reference book of American recipes.

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Cooking has always been a pleasure for me. Eating is not the point, though I like that a lot, too.

Having meals together was a family ritual when I grew up in western Pennsylvania in the 1940s. There were few frozen foods then. We really did eat locally and seasonally, as every chef worth her salt is saying she cooks now.

Fresh tomatoes in summer only. Canned the rest of the year. Strawberries you pick yourself for about three weeks in June. Fresh fish? Forgeddaboudit! Not unless someone in the family went up to Lake Erie or Canada to fish.

In the days before giant chicken gulags, chicken was a Sunday-only treat. My mom made homemade noodles to eat with the gravy. I got to help cut them. Veal was cheap — probably locally culled males from dairy herds. One regular on our menus was what was called a “veal bird” — a cut of veal on a bone, shaped to look like a chicken leg. Kind of bland actually.

Mom was an even better baker than she was a cook. My dad had the world’s biggest sweet tooth, so there were always fresh baked goods on the menus — especially pies, in all seasons. Tart cherry pies in May, foraged elderberry pies in August, grape pies in September, dried apricot pies in the winter, or shoo-fly pie (molasses and honey) in January.

My sister and I still have our grandmother’s recipe for raisin-filled cookies, one of my dad’s childhood favorites. They could be made year-round.

I suppose I learned the basics of cooking at home. How to sift and measure flour, how to make a white sauce (bechamel, these days). In high school, my friends and I practiced having tea parties and luncheons. We ate a lot of chicken ala king, supposedly a very up-scale menu item, at the time!

You can find the recipe for chicken a la king on page 242 of the 1962 edition of “Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. I know. I still have my first cookbook. Today it is held together by duct tape, inside and out, and is grease spotted on more than a few pages — selected pages.

The story of this one cookbook, a staple of some of the United States’ most prestigious chefs, such as Julia Child, is worth a column in itself.

It was first published privately by Rombauer in 1931, as a way of making some much-needed money after her husband, a businessman, committed suicide in 1930 as a result of a severe bout of depression. It has been in print ever since 1936 and has sold over 18 million copies. The revised eighth edition was issued in 2006, its 75th anniversary.

The book is a reference work in American cooking. This is American cooking of the middle class — people who do their own cooking and baking. The down-home commentary on recipes and easy-to-read format make it very accessible for the beginning cook. I use it as a reference for things I don’t make from day to day. What are the spices for making bread-and-butter pickles? What’s in a Sloppy Joe? How to make apricot jam?

Last week I made, once again, one of my favorite recipes, Plum Cake Cockaigne, page 619. Unfortunately, I had to become a thief in order to do that. Why are the Italian prune-plums, grown in such abundance around here, never sold in the stores? They are superior for a baking plum, much less watery than all their hand-fruit cousins, and full of flavor and fiber. No wonder they are used for prunes.

The harvesting equipment was waiting in the orchards when I made my midnight hunter-gatherer foray to get enough for a cake. Simple and delicious — not too sweet, sort of like coffee cake.

I had wondered about the name — Cockaigne. I thought maybe it designated a certain style of preparing a dish. Like Florentine — with spinach, or ala Veronica, with grapes. I could never find such a reference.

It turns out that Irma’s daughter, Marion, who edited the 1962 edition, explained that they added the word Cockaigne to some of their personal favorite dishes because it signified “in medieval times, ‘a mythical land of peace and plenty,’ and also happens to be the name of our country home.”

Being the compulsive personality I am, I went through the whole index, looking for all the recipes designated “Cockaigne.” They ranged from stuffed beets (too cutsey for me) to farina balls (probably really good in soup) to creamed eggs and asparagus cockaigne (shades of the 1950s) to fish in aspic (also 1950s haute cuisine) to braised stuffed pork chops (sounds really good) to tutti-frutti cockaigne or brandied fruit (how can you go bad?).

Joy of Cooking is a fine and handy reference work. In case you have an opossum or squirrel to cook, the directions are here. Just make sure you get a grey squirrel. Irma says the red squirrels are “quite small and gamey in flavor.”

I wouldn’t know.

And I don’t think I’m about to find out.


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