by Marion Rombauer
is the tale of an acorna few recipes circulated
by my mother, Irma von Starkloff Rombauer, for a class
she was asked to hold in the early 1920's for the benefit
of a Unitarian church in St. Louisthat grew into
a great oak. How she loved the group which made up the
Women's Alliance! Particularly the Taussig sisters: Bella,
Grace and Charlotte. With Bella Mother founded the Children's
Lunch Association, later taken over by the Board of Education
on a city-wide basis. To Grace, her imposing sister, she
was indebted for the insistence that when she write her
cookbook it be written as though everyone were a fool
in the kitchenadvice assiduously followed. From
Charlotte, the youngest of the trio, whose comments on
all civic crises appeared regularly in the correspondence
column of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mother derived
frequent edification, and not a little amusement.
There was, too, in this group Mrs. Roger Rowse, a forthright
Bostonian and parliamentarian par excellence. Deep plots
were hatched under her aegis both at the Alliance and
at the Wednesday Club, another ladies' organization to
which they all belonged. Winter evenings were sometimes
spent in telephonic conspiracy, sometimes in painting
oilcloth bibs for the Church Bazaar; and Mother's boredom
was great when reorders came in for three ducks chasing
each other across the bib-bottom instead of the more venturesome
patterns she preferred.
The annual fall excitement was the cook-up in the church
kitchen preparing jellies and "Senfgurken."
When pickling cucumbers began to turn yellow, the day
would be set. Since cars were still rather scarce, ever-practical
Mother arranged to have the grocer pick her up on his
way to making his important delivery. Little did she foresee
that the noon editions of the newspapers would one cook-up
day carry a hilarious story about her and the cucumbers
scattered all over Kings highway in a fortunately otherwise
Why was Mother qualified to teach a cooking class? All
through her lifeand, as I have found, all through
minethe most unlikely enthusiasms, the most far-fetched
experiences, have, after long dormancy, suddenly burst
into applicable aptitudes. It is true that a few of Mother's
culinary beginnings were on the conventional side. One
such was the casual introduction during her formative
years to a varied European cuisine. And this acquaintanceship
formed a subliminal foundation of sorts when she attended
a series of seasonal cooking sessions presided over by
a Mrs. Ray Johnson of Paris, Kentucky, who spent her summers,
as did our family, in Bay View, Michigan. The date must
have been around 1915. The Johnson "School"
was perhaps Mother's only exposure to formal culinary
training. But it brought out in her an unusual and at
first rather inexplicable flair for decorating cakes.
were not the stiff, massive structures of harsh-colored
icing that in those days took pride of place in bakery
windowsas much occupational symbols as the cigar-store
Indian or the pharmacist's colored jarsbut masterpieces
of delicate sugar frosting with garlands of wild roses
cascading over the sides and graceful arches of lilies
of the valley or forget-me-nots accenting the recipient's
Mother's skill in floral confection can, in retrospect,
be traced back to a lifelong love of gardening. As a child,
traveling abroad, she caused something of a family stir
by starting hyacinth bulbs under her bed. As an adult,
in city cinders and clay or Michigan sand, she managed
to coax along an astonishing diversity of plants. Peripheral,
too, in this connection, but contributing toward a lively
appreciation of how, at least, to present food attractively
were her several years of study, just before the turn
of the century, at the Washington University Art School.
For that matter, there can be little doubt that the dominant
role Mother subsequently played in many civic organizations
equipped her with the initiative and careful coordination
she would need later still to put across her special expertness
to what became her "public."
Mother's early housekeeping days, after her marriage to
Edgar Rombauer in 1898, gave little evidence of culinary
prowess. "Will it encourage you," she asked
in one of Joy's prefaces, "to know that I
was once as ignorant, helpless and awkward a bride as
was ever foisted on an impecunious young lawyer? Together
we placed many a burnt offering upon the altar of matrimony."
The "togetherness" she refers to may, in fact,
have pulled many a burnt offering out of the fire; for
the "young lawyer," during his bachelorhood,
had with the Judge, his father, spent a couple of summers
lightheartedly prospecting for gold in Colorado, and brought
with him to the blessed state the rough competence of
a camp-fire cook.
1998 facsimile of the original 1931 edition. The book
is illustrated with the silhouette cutouts created
by Marion Rombauer. The cover art depicts St. Martha
of Bethany, the patron saint of cooking, slaying the
dragon of kitchen drudgery.
it is an open secret that Mother, to the very end of her
life, regarded social intercourse as more important than
food. The dinner table, in our childhood, frequently suggested
a lectern rather than a buffet. What I remember better
than the dishes it upheldwhich, I must admit, constantly
improved in qualitywas the talk which went 'round
it, talk which burst forth out of our richly multiple
interests. Among Father's was the Urban League, of which
he seemed perennial president, and whose work was important
then, as now, because of southern in-migration. Another
was his participation in reform government. It led to
tenurebrief as the life of the reform itselfas
Speaker of the St. Louis House of Delegates. As a gesture
of compensation for the time he spent at City Hall, Father
turned his token salary as Speaker over to Mother.
later years there were other gay musical gatherings at
Mother's, especially while she served on the board of
the St. Louis Symphony. Some of these occurred in seasons
during which the podium was occupied by a series of guest
conductors. Most of these visitors were European. Virtually
all had few close friends in the city, were not averse
to an informal home-cooked meal, and enjoyed a quiet encounter
with sympathetic people who could in some instances literally
speak their languageor, rather, one of their languages.
This pleasant contingency brought us, among others, Georg
Szell, Molinari, and the Arboses, with their great friend
Alfred Cortot. Cortot especially delighted the company
with his parodies of nineteenth-century bravura pieces,
executed with the dramatic help of a large navel orange,
which he rolled sonorously over the keyboard.
By 1929 my brother had left home and I was planning to
be married and live away, too. My father's death in early
1930 left Mother, ten years his junior, with the realization
that she would soon be entirely without the companionship
of an immediate family. My brother and I had often urged
her to put into systematic order the underlying directives
of a personal cuisine which had long since excited far
more than a neighborhood appreciation. It was at this
juncture, partly to comply, chiefly to distract her keen
unhappiness, that she decided to spend another summer
in Michigan, taking with her, needless to say, the mimeographed
sheaf of recipes she had compiled, some eight years before,
for the Women's Alliance. She knew she needed salvation
in work, and that to work she must manage to avoid people,
much as she loved and attracted them. And so, on this
very different kind of Michigan trip, she went not to
Bay View, which she never again revisited, but to a small
inn near Charlevoix, where she was a complete stranger.
She had no inkling, of course, that she was carrying with
her into Johnny Appleseed country an acorn of even more
promising potential, or what world-wide companionship
its growth would bring her, what years of absorbing activity.
On her return to St. Louis, Mother persuaded Charlie Maguire's
niece, my father's former secretary and a friend to all
of us, to help her by typing out and commenting critically
on her expanding text. By the second summer I was in New
York, where manuscript pages from St. Louis arrived regularly.
After painting in the mornings, I tested recipes in the
afternoon against the arrival of John, his sister and
her fiance for dinner. The following winter, while I directed
the art department at the John Burroughs School in St.
Louis, I worked weekends on the chapter headings and the
production of the book.
naive and straightforward was our approach to publishing!
We simply called in a printer. I remember the Saturday
morning he arrived, laden with washable cover fabrics,
type and paper samples. In a few hours all decisions were
made, and shortly afterwards we signed a contract for
3,000 copies complete with mailing cartons and individualized
stickers. Then came the new experience of galleys, proofreading
and preparing an index. But peaceful country interludes
were about to be exchanged for another intensive zeroing-in
on a new edition. Every transformation of Joy means
to its authors a "power and astonishment of work."
But preparing and putting together the edition of 1951
seemed, especially to the senior member of our pair, intolerably
irksome. When the last galley had been corrected she told
me she felt like the wan and emaciated angel Ginnie Hofmann
sent us along with her final drawing. Indeed, after some
reflection, she announced that she was, like Ginnie and
her winged messenger, "finished" reluctantly,
but for good. She had planted the acorn and performed
a stupendous and winning job of cultivation. The sapling
she nurtured had grown to a tree of broad caliper, and
she was at last ready to rest in its grateful shade.
day, while Mother was lecturing in Columbus, a woman rushed
up to the platform and breathlessly asked "Have you
ever thought of writing the story of your life?",
to which she replied, simply, "No, why should I?"
The rejoinder may have satisfied the inquisitive stranger,
but it didn't satisfy me. When Mother withdrew from active
collaboration on Joy, I approached her for a second
time to suggest that she write a book. This
time my plea failed, although I discovered in Mother's
papers after her death a tiny fragmentary start. How I
wish she had kept on! It has fallen to me to sketch Mother's
life as I saw it.
left, and her sister Elsa were inseparable companions,
although very different in temperament.
come to the end of this random narrative, without having
in the least succeeded in distilling from it a formula
for assembling a world-famous cookbook. Whoever first
put together the triad "food, clothing, and shelter"
gave the first an impressive priority. Can we infer that
just as war is too important to be left to the generals,
so cookbook writing is too important to be left to the
minutes of the First Unitarian Women's Alliance are misplaced
and the memories of its surviving members somewhat hazy
about just when between 1922 and 1924 Irma Rombauer got
together a sheaf of seventy-three mimeographed recipes
as a foundation for their cooking course.
was over fifty when we persuaded her to compile a more
comprehensive cookbook. Privately printed in 1931, the
3,000 copies could boast 500 tested recipes from which
"inexperienced cooks cannot fail to make successful
souffles, pies, cakes, soups, gravies, if they follow
the clear instructions given on these subjects. The Zeitgeist
is reflected in the chapter on Leftovers and in many practical
suggestions." The Zeitgeist, now so painful to recall,
was the Great Depression.
Mother's friends made sales lively, but not brisk enough
to suit her. A pilgrimage to consult Mr. Kroch, of Kroch's
International Bookstore, Chicago, brought forth his startled
comment: "Two thousand copies privately sold in two
years, womanand you come to me?" Meanwhile
the manuscript of an enlarged Joy was making the
rounds. It came to rest, as it happened, in Indianapolis.
While playing bridge at her cousin Ina's, Mother met Lawrence
Chambers, President of Bobbs-Merrill, who agreed to look
over her text, largely because he had always enjoyed Ina's
elegant cuisine. Publicationfull-fledged, authentic
publication, this timefollowed in 1936.
1936 introduction to Joy took an expansionist tone:
"Although I have been modernized by life and my children,
my roots are Victorian. This book reflects my life. It
was once merely a private record of what the family wanted,
of what friends recommended and of dishes made familiar
by foreign travel and given an acceptable Americanization.
In the course of time there have been added to the rather
weighty stand-bye of my youth the ever-increasing lighter
culinary touches of the day. So the record, which to begin
with was a collection such as every kitchen-minded woman
possesses, has grown in breadth and bulk until it now
covers a wide range."