In 1931, one year before my mother was born, a fifty-four-year-old woman named Irma Rombauer predated the current DIY approach to book publishing and self-published a collection of recipes and kitchen knowledge for $3,000*. That book, once commercialized, would go on to become the American cooking classic, the Joy of Cooking. More than fifty years later, I would cook the first meal I remember making completely on my own from this book: at age thirteen or fourteen, I used my mother's yellowing edition (the fourth from the top in this post's photograph; the aqua colored one with no dust jacket and a bright red ribbon to mark your place, which I think was the sixth edition that appeared in 1962) to prepare a special breakfast of "German Apple Pancake" for my family. We were living in Los Angeles (or my parents were—I don't recall whether I made this dish before going to a boarding school for the arts in North Carolina, or if I made it during a vacation), in a two-bedroom condominium on Eastborne, off Santa Monica Boulevard. I remember being alone in the kitchen, nervous yet hopeful as I peeled apples and readied the giant skillet that would go first on the stovetop, then in the oven. I remember having no second thoughts about the volume of butter that melted in the pan to sautée the sliced apples (a luxury of youth, to think nothing at all of melted butter); I remember the cinnamon. I remember the milk, flour, and eggs, pouring the batter over the cooked apples then putting the pan in the oven. I remember the pancake puffing up high, then falling once it cooled on the table. It was wonderful, light, and boosted my culinary confidence. I've made this pancake several times since then, and think someday I'll do it again, or teach my son how. Unfortunately, if I want to replicate it truly, I'll have to check out the new, 75th anniversary edition of Joy of Cooking and hope that the recipe is still included. I could kick myself now, because although I inherited my mother's battered copy once I went to college, eventually, in one of my move-inspired book purges, I got rid of it. I just didn't have room—or rather, I was more apt to use my seductive, full-color, modern cookbooks, and so decided that the recipes were too outdated and the book so worn, that it was not worth keeping, even for sentimental reasons. But in fact, I am somewhat sentimental about this old edition of the book. Maybe I'll track one down. If I do (or even if I don't), one thing's certain: there's a German Apple Pancake in our family's future. For old time's sake, and to tip my hat to that determined, enterprising home chef, Irma.
Notes: A Joy of Cooking timeline, which I've used as the source for this post's image and publishing information, can be found at Simon & Schuster's site, www.simonandschuster.net (click here to go directly to the Joy page).
* Using the Consumer Price Index, $3,000 in 1931 would be in the ballpark of $42,410 in present-day monetary value. This estimate was provided by Measuring Worth, at: http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/