“JOY OF COOKING” is a kitchen bible, and we’re not accustomed to think of bibles changing with the times. We also don’t think of them as having living authors.
Yet there were John Becker and Megan Scott, who oversaw the new ninth edition of the 89-year-old cookbook, sitting at my kitchen table on a recent Seattle trip. I set out some “Joy of Cooking” date bread, warm from the oven, a slightly surreal time-warp for a snack I often baked for my grandmother, taken from the book first published by Becker’s great-grandmother.
Like many others, I received “Joy of Cooking” as a landmark gift for life events — one copy for my 18th birthday and another at my wedding. As Becker and Scott know, the book carries an intergenerational weight that goes even beyond its encyclopedic breadth.
“I’ll always keep my mom’s copy,” wrote one typical commenter on the book’s Instagram page.
“Joy” was self-published by Irma S. Rombauer in 1931 and later expanded and updated by her daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, before the job fell to Marion’s son, Ethan Becker, who is John’s father. (A 1997 edition involved star chefs and made some controversial cuts; the 2006 edition restored the original approach.) John Becker didn’t get involved until he was around 30, coming across a dedication by Marion that made him think he had a role in the book’s legacy.
It was the 1963 edition, the first one produced by Marion after Irma’s death, and it read something like, “I hope my sons and their wives continue to keep ‘Joy’ a family affair, beholden to no one but themselves and you” — “you” being the reader, Becker says.
“I don’t know why, but it just hit me really deeply, kind of like a funny bone, but the opposite. Reading it late at night, I thought, “Maybe I have some skills I can offer. Maybe this is something I should be doing.’ ”
He and Scott — who met in school when she worked at a bakery and he was a barista — spent a few years in Tennessee, where Ethan Becker lives, and eventually moved to Portland. Their apprenticeship started with the “Joy of Cooking” app — “disassembling the entire book and putting it together in a different form,” figuring out its intricate innards. They parsed each line of the book several times, built genealogies of recipes and tested thousands, researched, fact-checked and took over the “Joy” social media accounts with a voice that stood out as real people rather than a brand.
Still, making the first changes to the manuscript was a daunting, if not panic-inducing, ordeal.
“One of the things that allowed me to do it, psychologically at least, is, it’s not my book. This is a collective effort,” Becker says. “This is not me trying to create a record of American cuisine; this is me trying to improve on something that came before.”
It also was freeing to see how Irma and Marion had worked, adds Scott. “They didn’t think the book as it was written was sacred. They were constantly changing it … We wanted there to be continuity, but didn’t feel like we had to save something just because it was old.”
The ninth edition has new sections, like ones on fermentation and one on streamlined cooking, plus a bibliography. It retains outlier essentials, like game meats (braised bear, p. 530, tested in Tennessee with what Becker recalls as a rather fatty bear), and it takes a more common-sense approach to meat temperatures, adds new recipes from different cultures and adds weight measurements to baking, plus historical perspective such as the troubled legacy of the United Fruit Company’s banana plantations. There are new papercut chapter headings by Seattle-area artist Anna Brones, plus 600 new recipes, including Megan’s Cheddar Scallion Biscuits from the bakery where Becker and Scott met.
The refinements add up to a renewed classic; the book is authoritative and endlessly instructive while retaining its oddly endearing personality — firm, friendly and occasionally funny.
That said, revising an heirloom means messing with a lot of people’s memories — including mine: When I opened the 1,080-page hardcover, I found my date bread now calls for walnuts instead of pecans, water instead of coffee, an extra half-cup of dates but no raisins, and oil instead of butter.
I baked one loaf of my old recipe for their visit, and one new one. When I asked why they’d changed my Date Spice Bread to a nutmeg-free Date Nut Bread, the surprise was on me: They had only retested a recipe that had already been updated in editions later than mine.
“Wildly delicious. Chock full of nuts and dates. Fabulous spread with salted butter,” their tasting notes read.
It was. And my ninth edition is going on my keeper shelf next to the sixth, at least for now. My oldest child turns 18 this year, and already asked whether he can take it with him.
(I wrote about the Date Spice Bread before.)
Date Nut Bread
(Choose relatively dry dates, rather than Medjools, which are too soft here.)
1. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease one 9-by-5-inch loaf pan or four 5½-by-3-inch loaf pans.
2. Cut into quarters (sixths, if large) and place in a medium bowl:
1½ cups packed, pitted dates
3. Stir in:
1 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon baking soda
4. Let stand until the mixture is lukewarm, about 20 minutes. Whisk together thoroughly in a medium bowl:
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
5. Whisk together in a large bowl:
2 large eggs
1 cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
6. Stir in the cooled date mixture. Stir in the flour mixture just until blended. Fold in:
2 cups chopped toasted walnuts
7. Scrape the batter into the pan(s), and spread evenly. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean: 35-40 minutes for small loaves, 55-65 minutes for the larger loaf. Let cool in the pan(s) on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn out onto the rack to cool completely.
Joy of Cooking (Scribner, $40)