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Out Of The Frying Pan

July 2024
6min read

When Irma Rombauer finally found a publisher for her famous cookbook, her troubles began in earnest

Every business has its idiosyncrasies. The Christmas-tree business is the world’s most seasonal. The commercial-airplane business requires an enormous capital investment in order to bring a single new product to market. An operation the size of Boeing (annual sales: $26.9 billion) might have only around a dozen commercial products for sale at any one time (not counting spare parts, of course).

The book business is almost exactly the opposite. Even a relatively small publisher might offer fifty new products a year; a large one, several hundred. And most books make at least 90 percent of their total sales in their first two months on the market. Last season’s mystery novel is usually as commercially dead as a Christmas tree on December 26.

But occasionally a book is published that continues to sell in large numbers year after year after year. Publishers call these backlist books, and they love them dearly.

The Bible is undoubtedly the all-time backlist champ, although anyone can publish it, since it’s been out of copyright for the last two thousand years. But which new books will turn into backlist books is an enduring mystery. Some sure-fire prospects bomb, while others expected to sell only modestly catch fire beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. The best-selling book in the history of the distinguished publisher Alfred A. Knopf, still selling briskly after more than seventy years, is Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet , a poem held in far higher regard by the public than by the critics.

A major category of backlist books is the cookbook. One of Knopf’s leading sellers after The Prophet is Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking , now in its fourth decade.

But the all-time champ in American cookbooks has been around even lone- er and has sold more than fifteen million copies in that time. The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer was first published in 1931. It has been through countless printings and editions since then, later ones revised by Mrs. Rombauer’s daughter, Marion Becker. In late 1997 a whole new edition was published, with Ethan Becker, Marion’s son, listed as coauthor.

The book has had an extraordinary history. In fact The Joy of Cooking may well be the only cookbook to have had an entire book written about it and its authors, Stand Facing the Stove by Anne Mendelson (Henry Holt, 1996). One of the more surprising aspects of the story is that The Joy of Cooking ’s original creator wasn’t that much of a cook.

Irma Rombauer was born in St. Louis in 1877. The daughter of a distinguished doctor from St. Louis’s large German-American community, she grew up in an era when even a middle-class family might have two or three household helpers, including a cook. Many women of her generation grew up believing that cooking, like plumbing, was something for professionals to deal with. But World War I and the sharp restrictions on immigration to the United States imposed in the early 1920s began to dry up the supply of domestic help, and their wages rose accordingly. The “servant problem,” so bemoaned by the sort of women immortalized in Helen Hokinson cartoons, had begun.

Mrs. Rombauer had married a promising lawyer, but he never lived up to his early promise. He had several nervous breakdowns, and in 1930 he committed suicide, leaving an estate of only six thousand dollars. Mrs. Rombauer, untrained for anything beyond managing a household and being a gracious hostess, needed to find a way to earn some money. She decided to write a cookbook. Since she had little, if any, reputation as a cook, it is not surprising that one of her relatives called her decision the “worst idea I ever heard of.”

Mrs. Rombauer didn’t even try to find a regular publisher, and by no means the least of the oddities regarding The Joy of Cooking is that it began its life as a vanity publication. In normal practice the publisher pays the author an advance against royalties and assumes all costs of publishing the book. But with vanity-press books the author pays the publisher. The vanity-press industry has a perfectly legitimate market niche, publishing worthy books that have too narrow a scope to appeal to a general audience, such as family histories and yearbooks. Yet it also has a sometimes-deserved reputation for taking would-be but untalented novelists and poets to the cleaners by encouraging their hopeless dreams of bestsellerdom.

However, if Mrs. Rombauer was not a natural cook, she was a natural writer, with a style that was different from that of the cookbooks then available. The earliest cookbooks had been little more than compilations of often maddeningly vague recipes, of the bake-until-done variety. These were fine for the accomplished cook but useless to someone just starting out in the kitchen, as more and more middle-class women were doing.

At the turn of the century, a trend toward precision and fully tested recipes had begun to change cook-books, led by The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book , written by the school’s founder, Fannie Farmer. But while Farmer’s work was a vast improvement on what had come before, the book’s technical tone was a bit intimidating.

Mrs. Rombauer wanted none of that. She was chatty and sociable by nature and saw no reason why her cookbook should not be the same. She wrote that cocktails should be served “preferably in the living room, and the sooner the better.” In a later edition, in a recipe for duckling Rouennaise (an haute cuisine dish of duck breast in which the poor animal is strangled just before cooking so that the meat is suffused with blood), she provided a substitute method if “duck-strangling will bring you into local disrepute.” My personal favorite is her recipe for puff paste. Mrs. Rombauer briskly stated that it had to be made “the same way porcupines make love—that is, very, very carefully.”

Mrs. Rombauer paid three thousand dollars, half her inheritance from her husband, for the printing of her book. With her wide network of friends and relations, she had no trouble getting it spread around, and soon friends of friends wanted copies too.

She dreamed of having her pride and joy published by a regular trade publisher (trade books are the sorts of books found in regular bookstores and tracked on bestseller lists), and she began sending around a manuscript of a revised version. In 1932 a cousin of hers in Indianapolis arranged a dinner for her to which D. Laurance Chambers, a vice president of Bobbs-Merrill, then a major American publisher with headquarters in Indianapolis, was also invited. He agreed to look at Mrs. Rombauer’s manuscript, but after several months he sent her a very polite rejection letter. Mrs. Rombauer persisted, and in 1935 Bobbs-Merrill took another look. It then persuaded her to do a complete revision of the manuscript, at her own expense, with no promise of future acceptance.

Laurance Chambers, now president of Bobbs-Merrill, did accept it. On December 5, 1935, undoubtedly aglow with her long-hoped-for success, Irma Rombauer traveled to Indianapolis to sign the contract. She had with her no agent or lawyer, and Chambers, who perceived himself as a member in good standing of the gentlemanly world of book publishing, proceeded to take advantage of her so shamelessly that it amounted almost to legal robbery. He threw a deliberate temper tantrum in order to intimidate her and forced her to sign a contract that assigned to Bobbs-Merrill not only the copyright of the forthcoming edition but also the copyright to her original self-published edition.

Irma Rombauer and Laurance Chambers, her publisher, never forgave each other. But her book made them both rich.

This meant, as Chambers fully understood and Mrs. Rombauer did not, that The Joy of Cooking became the property of Bobbs-Merrill, a fact that would cost the Rombauer family millions of dollars and unending grief. Chambers certainly recognized the value of what he was acquiring, as he intended to publish the book in only a few months, promote it aggressively, and have an initial printing of ten thousand copies. That was a very substantial number for a cookbook by an unknown author using a new style.

Fortunately Mrs. Rombauer’s chat-over-the-fence style was exactly what thousands of new cooks liked best about Joy , and the book was an immediate hit, selling more than six thousand copies in the first six months of publication. Then not only did it continue to sell (with reprintings of ten thousand each from 1938 to 1942), but sales increased . In 1943 Bobbs-Merrill decided on a new edition to take account of the changes being rapidly brought about by the war.

By now Mrs. Rombauer had learned her lesson. She had every line of the new contract gone over by a lawyer, which Chambers took as an affront to his integrity. So extended and acrimonious were the negotiations that the contract was not finally signed until a mere two weeks before the publication date. So bitter did the negotiations make editor and author that Chambers and Mrs. Rombauer never forgave each other.

But the book made them both rich. The first edition of The Joy of Cooking had sold 52,151 copies from 1936 through 1942. The following year alone it sold 61,428 copies. In 1946 both Joy and The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book were issued in new editions, and Joy outsold its rival by almost three to one. It never looked back. In only one year of the following thirty did Boston regain the lead, and that was only because Bobbs-Merrill had let the stock of an old edition run out while it prepared a new one.

Relations between the author and publisher never improved. Indeed they got worse and worse. In 1962, at Mrs. Rombauer’s funeral, her daughter and successor as author of the best-selling general-purpose trade cookbook of all time was told by a neighbor that she had seen a new edition in the bookstores. It was the first Marion Becker had heard of it because Bobbs-Merrill had simply stitched together several drafts she had submitted and published it without so much as a by-your-leave. The lesson here clearly is that you need three things to be a successful author: talent, originality—and a good agent.

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