The Joy of Cooking is in my DNA

This essay is part of a feature, Food Writer Friday, which highlights a significant food writer and explores the ways they have shaped us as writers, thinkers and cooks. Tag us online with #foodwriterfriday to share your greatest influences.

There are many editions of The Joy of Cooking, but my Joys are the Joys. The Joys that were written by my great and great great aunts, Irma Rombauer and her daughter Marion Rombauer Becker, buds on the St. Louis branch of the Becker family tree. Their editions were published before 1975. Those are my editions.

Joy is not a sexy book. Its recipes are sturdy and reliable, sort of like church lady walking shoes. It wasn’t a cool book and I only began to realize its influence on me when I was in college. I was helping a friend as she ran a wholesale fruit bread and cheesecake business while cooking the after-hours shift at a rock'n’roll club in Manhattan. It was a schedule enough to drive anyone crazy and when my friend had a nervous breakdown, she left me at the helm and alone at the stove. My cooking knowledge, at that time, did not exceed fruit bread and cheesecake.  

chlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

chlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

The first order placed—lamb chops, medium rare—was well-beyond anything I knew or, at least, thought I knew. I mean, I knew I should cook the meat. I knew I should make it taste good.

As panic set in, I spied some mint jelly on the only shelf in the kitchen. Something deeply buried, not consciously recalled, began to percolate... Aunt Marion’s recipe for roast chicken slathered with a jar of apricot jam. The faint memory was permission enough for me so I slathered the chops with the mint jelly, seared them in a cast iron pan and sent them out.

It was a case of accidental perfection. I was rewarded with clean plates, stoned accolades, huge smiles and kisses. James Taylor was impressed.

I was chagrined! I was an aspiring actor, sensitive to allure and chic, dark and affectation. But some buried memory of two stodgy Midwestern relatives had, in fact, made me cool in the eyes of Sweet Baby James. I was also delighted by the juxtaposition: dowdy old Midwestern Joy melting the hearts of “Le Tout” rock’n’roll New York.

When California called, I dragged my copy of Joy out to LA with me. The book sat at the ready on my kitchen counter just like my boring, yet indispensable, walking shoes that I used to get from car to audition. I didn’t frequently reference Joy, but as aromas wafted down the halls as I cooked and neighbors knocked on my door, I invited them in as Marion or Irma, the humorous hostesses, would have done. Friendships were made, laughter was abundant. My table was joyous.

Between acting and private chef jobs, I watched Julia Child on television and began to collect cookbooks. They transported me to places I hadn’t been and longed to see. There was Georgeanne Brennan’s Potager, Stephane Reynaud’s Rotis, LuLu’s Provençal Kitchen, Julia and more Julia, Beard on Bread, Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook… but there was also my battered, splattered and stained Joy. Although frequently shoved aside for another trendier contender, Joy was a constant, the guardian of “safe” cooking, ready to pull me into a world of clattering spoons and messy aprons. The Joy of Cooking was the reliable lead for the supporting players, people and adventures in my life. These players made me passionate as they teased, tempted and invited me to love the joy of cooking itself.

Joy was all-American, but had been my gateway drug to all things French. When a broken heart sent me to Paris, the daily markets restored my smile. The ingredients and dishes that kept me longing and dreaming before, as only the French and their joie de vivre are able to do, were right in front me. Of course, Joy was my chaperone abroad and she kept following me, guiding me, nudging me from behind as we stalked the markets. Those hours were delicious.

Just as I reached, instinctively for mint jelly, I veered from the formal stage to the “theater” of New York City restaurants. I didn’t have the schooling to be in a hallowed New York City kitchen so I worked the front, seating and greeting, for Jonathan Waxman. I moved on to The Gotham Bar and Grill where Alfred Portale surrounded me with fine cooking and taught me the discipline of dining room. I was enamored by Thomas Keller’s culinary precision and he taught me to create a plate so seemingly sophisticated, yet, at times, so simple. Food was about the ingredients.

Marion Rombauer Becker had been a staunch supporter of good ingredients, encouraging the use of whole grains and organic produce. It seems I was simply learning then what Joy had been trying to teach: hospitality, good food. By the time I opened my first restaurant, Alison on Dominick in lower Manhattan in 1989, peace and complete confidence claimed me when I tied my apron strings.

Like a sensible—sometimes overbearing—aunt who knows too much, Joy is usually right. Even when I think she’s banal or wrong, her recipes work. She stands behind me like a general in her apron as I gather pots and utensils and set them out like soldiers ready to do friendly battle with my raw ingredients. Considering the parts and parcels before me, I can hear Irma Rombauer in my head reminding me to “approach the matter of cooking with an open mind” while urging me to be “guided by your tastes and impulses.”

Sometimes, when I glance over a recipe to checking timing and proportion, I feel Joy watching me, nourishing me. I hear her laughing. Possibly from the sheer JOY of sharing the heart and mind, the conviviality of food, that makes a real cook and a kitchen home.

Alison Price Becker, the founder of Alison Food Group and the author of Kitchen Suppers: Good Food to Share with Good Friends, is a diversified hospitality and food professional versed in all consumer driven phases of the food and beverage industries, including television and media. When not working, you can find Alison cooking for her friends family in New York City and chronicling her life with food on The Wonky Chicken.