What Joy Is Missing

The latest edition of America’s kitchen bible falls short.

A thick, yellow sludge bubbled away in my pan. It didn’t look too promising. Maybe the chicken would help. I stirred in three cups of cooked chicken and reduced the heat. According to the recipe, it would take about five minutes “to blend the flavors,” after which the pan would suddenly be full of—chicken curry! And that’s exactly what happened, if you define chicken curry as a thick, yellow sludge with pieces of chicken in it. I took a taste: canned coconut milk, canned crushed pineapple, powdered ginger, and curry powder. Especially curry powder. How did this recipe, truly a cry of despair from the dark night of America’s culinary soul, find its way into the “brand new” and “updated” Joy of Cooking?

In truth, the 75th-anniversary edition of Joy, which arrives in bookstores this week with enormous hoopla, hasn’t been made “brand new” at all. It’s been antiqued with a vengeance. The new edition is an impassioned mea culpa for the last edition, which was launched to similar fanfare back in 1997 (the first update since 1975). That book—more Gourmet than Good Housekeeping—provoked such anguish among Joy devotees that the publisher, Scribner, is now desperate to make amends. “This Joy is a return to the traditional ‘friend in the kitchen,’ ” swears the press release. “We have brought Joy back to its original glory.” But you can’t go home again, at least not if you’re planning to eat there. Joy’s “original glory” was precisely that—original—and there’s no re-creating it.

One reason Joy is still around to celebrate 75 years is that its founding writer, Irma Rombauer, let past and present mingle comfortably at her table. The new edition nods to that spirit with 500 recipes created especially for 2006, along with 4,000 mined from past editions. Irma would have loved to see the recipes for sushi and bagel chips in the book, as well as the instructions on how readers can concoct their own flavored vodka. But … patty melts and corn dogs and shrimp wiggle and Mississippi mud pie? That’s not updating, it’s retrofitting. Irma never ladled nostalgia across the page like cheap custard.

What makes this a recognizable Joy are the genuinely traditional recipes, those that emerged from their time and settled into place on their merits. Some are the recipes that taught generations of Americans how to get dinner on the table—pot roast, brownies, lasagna, hollandaise. Others are more contemporary: a Gruyère-Parmesan cheese crisp to accompany a salad, and an array of dry rubs and spices for meat and fish. And, thank goodness, there are still pages of painstaking instructions on homemade puff pastry, cake decorating, oyster shucking, and how to impress company by setting the after-dinner coffee on fire. I hope I never make Café Diablo in my life, but I confess I like knowing I could if I wanted to.

Much of the material jettisoned from the last edition has been brought back, wisely. The ice-cream chapter has been restored, and there’s a lovely, genteel recipe for Sour Cream Apple Cake Soufflé, so grandmotherly you’ll want to go out and buy flowered china to serve it on. Most important to Joy devotees: The jovial voice of Irma Rombauer—ditched in 1997—can be heard once again.

But the past has to be handled with care, or all we’re going to see is a lot of artificial sepia tinting. In Irma’s day, for instance, convenience foods were a miracle of progress and efficiency; she used them happily at every opportunity. The new book is less naive, but it’s shameless about reclaiming Joy’s history by any means necessary. Hence there’s an odious page of the canned-soup combinations she adored. (Put two kinds together and hope the end tastes better than the means.) Conceivably, they’re here to honor her memory. But what’s the excuse for a beef stew made with canned tomato sauce, canned onion soup, and frozen vegetables? And the disgusting curry that sat in my refrigerator for three days before I finally threw it out? These honor nothing but the triumph of the food industry over common sense.

As for Irma’s voice, the pride of the 75th-anniversary edition, it sits on the page with a hard brightness, as if her charm had been shellacked into place. The editors of the 1997 edition were probably right to make a clean break with all those creaky jokes and stories, not to mention many a weary recipe. In fact, the forward tilt of that version was exactly what Joy needed at the time: Goodbye, Hawaiian Meatballs and Grapefruit Sherry Aspic; hello, bruschetta and Jamaican Goat Curry. But the editors were so bedazzled by celebrity chefs and supermarket mesclun, they lost touch with the ordinary cook who had always been able to find a home in Joy. Nobody quite trusted a Joy that shed its old housedress, pulled on designer jeans, and invited a posse of glamorous experts to gather around the Viking.

Maybe next time around, Scribner can come up with a Joy that’s true to both history and the future. Or maybe we already have it—in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, the current go-to for home cooks who rarely open their behemoth kitchen bibles anymore. This is pesto, he says; that’s a stir-fry; this sauce is quick, that one takes longer. Bittman has an elegant way of getting to the point without stooping to mindless shortcuts, and his 960 pages are never overwhelming. He doesn’t offer the universe, only a slice of life, but it’s our life.

By contrast, the new Joy seems stuck in a time warp of its own making, longing to deliver useful domestic comforts, yet immobilized by its own overwhelming past. Here are the pictures of every pasta shape, here are the instructions on how to pass the salt, and here is a long section on how to eviscerate the bear you shot. (“Free the intestines by cutting around the anus and pulling them through to the inside. This is easier if you split the pelvic bone with a heavy knife.”) If you miss your shot, by the way, better drop Joy and run. It’s a good resource, but there are moments when it will certainly slow you down.