Review of ‘Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America The Joy of Cooking’, ‘Auguste Escoffier: Memories of My Life’

Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America The Joy of Cooking
Anne Mendelson
Henry Holt

Auguste Escoffier: Memories of My Life
Auguste Escoffier, translated by Laurence Escoffier
Van Nostrand Reinhold

Irma Rombauer was 54 years old when the first edition of The Joy of Cooking appeared in 1931. She had decided to put together a recipe collection after the death of her husband in 1930 and paid $3,000 to publish the book. Everyone thought it was a recipe for disaster. "But Irma, who will buy your book?" asked one contributor. "All our friends have all those recipes." Her relatives were blunter. "Worst idea I ever heard of," was the word from her brother's family. "Irma's a TERRIBLE cook."

That judgment may sound harsh, but Anne Mendelson's wonderfully entertaining biography makes it clear that it wasn't exactly unwarranted. "Canned soups," says Mendelson, "were one of her true loves," along with bouillon cubes, food coloring and "molded salads of the X-number-of-ingredients-set-in-gelatin ilk." Both Irma and her daughter Marion, Mendelson avers, "adored the can opener as the best friend of any woman with the wit to use one."

To those knowing only the modern (1975) edition of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker's kitchen bible, Mendelson's comments may sound as off-base as the remarks of Irma's brother. But the Joy of Cooking that most people use today (an initial "The" was dropped from the book's title in 1962) is six major revisions and scores of printings removed from Irma's original book. Just as Joy changed the lives of its authors, and of millions of Americans, it has itself been transformed into something very different from what it was at its birth.

Biography is always a complex task, demanding the excavation and evaluation of contradictory sources, the re-creation of bygone times, and a rigorous interpretation of the fluid and ambiguous elements of a person's life. Mendelson's subject is particularly daunting, however, because her story involves four main characters (mother, daughter, book and publisher) whose lives span more than a century of dramatic changes in American social and culinary history.

To understand the relationships among these characters, think soap opera. Irma is the star-a spirited, competitive, charming and manipulative woman whose buoyant attitude hides a series of unhappy secrets. (Her brother Emil was a notorious con man, her husband committed suicide, and her relationships with friends and family members were often rocky.) Marion, in contrast, is steady, serious and a bit dowdy. She "had a vast talent for making friends," many of them artistic and creative, and enjoyed at least one well-managed love affair before her marriage, but to Irma she remained an ugly duckling.

The cookbook plays the role of family patriarch, providing large dollops of cash while demanding only periodic attention, yet offering a focus for a series of rifts and reconciliations. And for a villain-a scheming deceiver, constantly fought but never vanquished-the saga of Irma and Marion has Laurance Chambers, the arrogant editor-in-chief of Bobbs-Merrill, Joy's publisher.

Mendelson dishes up this tale like a skillful hostess: she whets our appetites with an assortment of curious facts and intriguing observations, and then sits us down to a carefully crafted dinner. With more than 400 footnoted pages and a cast worthy of Tolstoy, this is no light meal. So to help us digest it, she pauses between courses-chapters describing the progress of Irma's and Marion's lives, the remaking of their cookbook and the battles with their publisher-to talk about culinary history and the things that made Joy so successful.

The cookbook's most important feature, Mendelson concludes, is that every edition conveys "a sense of a real, solid friendship" between the authors and their audience. "Irma and Marion were both unabashedly amateur cooks-and haste-driven ones at that," but they made their readers comfortable. Filled with advice about everything from cocktails ("serve them by all means, preferably in the living room, and the sooner the better," says my mother's 1946 edition) to leftovers ("Someone defined eternity as a ham and two people," from my 1976 volume), their cookbook made putting meals on the table seem fun.

Auguste Escoffier, often called "the king of chefs and chef of kings," was as elitist about cuisine as Irma and Marion were egalitarian. But the writings collected in Memories of My Life make it clear that he also got a great deal of joy-and considerable success-from cooking.

Escoffier was born in 1846 near Nice. The son of a blacksmith, at age 13 "I was informed that I was to be a cook, and I was given no option but to obey." Yet even as an apprentice, Escoffier understood that the presentation of food was as important as its preparation. Menus, he says, should read like "a sort of poem recalling the happy hours spent" over a meal, and in his recipe for Pêche Melba (vanilla ice cream topped with peaches and sugared raspberry puree) he insists that it be served in a silver dish embedded in an ice sculpture-he preferred a swan.

Escoffier's recipes are nothing like the well-ordered lists and procedures found in the latest Joy. To prepare a fish mousse, he instructs us to heat shrimp and truffles for the sauce "until the aroma of the truffles is perfect," and his recipe for paprika prawns includes ingredients measured in spoonfuls, large spoonfuls, teaspoons, dessert spoons and "a large glass."

Although this book is not a guide for cooks, it does convey an artful picture of Escoffier and the world he worked in. An "appropriate menu" he prepared for Cora Pearl (a famous courtesan of the day) and her swain, at a private dinner in Paris, captures Escoffier's style perfectly. The infatuated boy may have missed the significance of his Lamb Cora with artichoke hearts (a coeur d'artichaut, the book explains, is French slang meaning something like "besotted sap"), but the next course, Pigeonneaux Cocotte (or "courtesan's little pigeons") surely gave him food for thought.

John R. Alden always tries to learn the food words first when he travels.

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