Ten Books That Changed My Life #6: Joy of Cooking

Joy of CookingJoy of Cooking
Irma Rombauer
Changed my life in March 2000

Given my earlier advice that both How to Cook Everything and The New Best Recipe are more essential cookbooks than Joy of Cooking, some of you may be surprised to see this book pop up here.

But it was a stained, beat-up copy of Joy of Cooking bought for fifty cents at a yard sale that began my journey into cooking, a passion that has grown without abatement for years and makes me almost cry out for a huge kitchen with a little pantry off to the side and a giant spice rack full to the brim with spices.

At the time I picked it up, I knew next to nothing about cooking. The most complex thing I could assemble was mac and cheese out of a box, but I wanted to be able to actually make something in the kitchen. I tried to follow a few recipes my grandmother gave me, but I had no idea what I was doing and I wound up with some “burritos” that were very hard and a very disturbingly dark brown.

For the first month, I didn’t even try cooking a thing. I just read the book straight through from beginning to end – and I was hooked. Even though I believe other books are better for teaching cooking, I have never read a cookbook as readable as Joy of Cooking. I would curl up with it on the couch in the evenings and learn about braising and how to churn your own butter, and I would actually go to sleep with visions of sugarplums dancing in my head.

Interestingly, my first copy of this book was accidentally thrown out by an overzealous friend during a kitchen clean-up. I left it out on the kitchen counter near some things I intended to toss, and the disheveled appearance of the book led my friend to believe that it was rubbish, too, so out it went. It was replaced with another copy quite quickly, which has itself started to grow worn and stained.

What’s it about?

Joy of Cooking is an enormous cookbook that has been steadily in print since 1936. Instead of merely being a compendum of recipes like many cookbooks, it is a mishmash of recipes, tutorials, and short articles on an almost dizzying array of topics. Even more interesting (with the exception of the archaic 1997 edition), the book is largely written in a very conversational tone, rather different than a lot of cookbooks.

In other words, it’s a cookbook that you can actually just sit down and read for enjoyment beyond using it as a tool in the kitchen. It is this readability that made me fall in love with it – and it has made lots of others fall in love with it, too. The only reason I hesitate to suggest it to a beginning chef is that most of the recipes are the equivalent of being tossed head first into the deep end of the swimming pool – if you’re not already familiar in the kitchen, a lot of this stuff will simply fly over your head or else result in something foul like those dark brown “burritos.”

How did Joy of Cooking shape the person I became?

It made me fall in love with cooking. The passion for cooking is deeply evident in every page of this book, and that passion is what made me go into the kitchen for the first time and try some things, and now I find myself in love with it, too.

It made me less afraid to try complicated new things. Before I read Joy of Cooking, I was somewhat timid to try things that seemed over my head. I would just shake my head and find something else more comfortable to do, like read a book or play a game or something. After reading this book, I became a lot less timid, and thus I’ve discovered a lot of things about myself in the ensuing seven years.

It built up my self-confidence. With only one other exception (which will come later on this list), this book built up my self-confidence, at least in terms of believing that I could do anything I wanted. In fact, it was this self-confidence that basically led me to starting this website.

It got me into better shape (nutritionally, at least). I used to live on macaroni and cheese and hot dogs and freezer meals and the like. Now they taste terrible to me. I discovered vegetables and meats and spices and all sorts of amazing things. Now I’ll eat all sorts of things that may or may not be the most perfectly healthy choices (hollandaise sauce is not healthy, but I can make it – and I do make it), but I do eat a much more balanced diet, rich in fruits and vegetables.

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