Home Cooking Bible ‘Joy of Cooking’ Has a Cincinnati Connection

The cookbook’s coauthor John Becker talks about the family business and releasing the classic cookbook’s ninth edition—the first to be fully revised by the founding family since 1975.
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Photograph courtesy of Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock.com

The fourth member of his family to write Joy Of Cooking, John Becker lives in Portland, Oregon, but grew up spending summers and vacations in Cincinnati with his father, Ethan Becker. The book’s ninth edition, which Becker and his wife, Megan Scott, have worked on for the last nine years, is the first to be fully revised by the family since 1975.

Within its 1,156 pages you’ll find more than 600 new recipes as well as more than 4,000 old favorites, dating back to both Joy originator Irma Rombauer (John Becker’s great-grandmother), and Ethan and his mother Marion Rombauer Becker’s time at Cockaigne, the family home in Anderson Township.

What did Joy mean to you as a kid?
Well, I was obviously aware of it. Growing up, when I was spending time in Cincinnati, my dad was living in the house that my grandfather designed, and there were a lot of artifacts from him, and from Marion: the trappings of the book. And Ethan had a few employees who were working on revising the book throughout the time I would spend with him.

I didn’t really start having a relationship with the book until I was in college and trying to fend for myself. My first dorm room actually did have a tiny, tiny kitchenette. And so I started cooking from the book, and would occasionally have friends over from the same dorm.

The house was torn down in 2005.
Yeah. It’s a sad, sad thing. It was like a Bauhaus-style house—really square, and as a result, there were a lot of leaking problems with the flat roof. And there was also very little insulation. Back when it was built, heating oil was super-cheap, but obviously that didn’t hold out. There was a lot of upkeep. And my dad had remarried. I think those two things kind of combined to lead to the decision to sell the house.

And there were no preservation efforts at the time?
No. Another house that my grandfather designed was actually restored. [Editor’s Note: The Rauh-Pulitzer house in Woodlawn.] That house was actually very similar, but a little bit more deluxe than the family home. Same style.

But even back in 2005, nobody was really thinking about preserving Modernist buildings. Or at least not to the point where my dad was aware of it. I think if he had been he would have been all about it.

Of course there is a small category of beloved recipes with the moniker “Cockaigne,” named after the house.
The mythical “land of plenty.” They actually had stationery. It had this little detail that was like straight out of a Bruegel painting. I can see why they were they were so proud of it, and why they gave the dishes that name. It was a really wonderful place. It was on eight acres, and part of it was wooded. My dad had this huge patch of bamboo—the Cincinnati Zoo would actually come by and trim some of it to feed the pandas, and I would take some heavy-duty clippers and and just go burrowing: create like, little forts. It was awesome.

You’ve said that not going to culinary school, which you considered, has been better for the book, since it has always been a book by and for home cooks.
Absolutely. I feel like in order to be true to them, the book had to change, but in a way that was still rooted in the experience of the home cook. I think it would have made this edition worse had I gone.

Keeping it in the family, testing recipes in our own house, in a real kitchen, I feel like we had a better idea of what questions to ask and which ones needed to be answered just by having that kind of amateur’s perspective. And that’s one of the things that made Irma’s and Marion’s editions resonate so well with readers.

I can recognize recipes that were written by Irma or Marion without having to check and see what edition it was from. I feel close to them in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Were you conscious of this being the first post-internet, social media edition of Joy?
We have fielded that question a lot: What is our place in the internet era? And I think our answer is that this is highly curated stuff. It’s not based on SEO. It’s not based on the need to create novel content for advertising dollars. It’s really trustworthy information that we spent a really long time trying to collect and vet—with the help of internet searching and and all other types of research. [The internet] is a blessing in many ways, you know? Marion apparently made day trips to the Cincinnati public library to do research all the time.

Jim Gregory from Maisonette was one of many Cincinnatians who worked with Marion informally. Did you ever go there growing up?
I think I might have been to Maisonette once or twice. But most of the memories I have of a food and Cincinnati…well, obviously they revolve around chili. My dad would pick me up at the airport and we would go to Skyline. That became a ritual. Also, Izzy’s, Montgomery Inn, and Floyd’s, the Lebanese place around the university. That was the first time I’d ever felt, like, really strong feelings about roast chicken. They had a vertical rotisserie and it was just the most magical thing ever.

Food historian Dann Woellert has said that Joy of Cooking is the reason people think chocolate is an ingredient in Cincinnati chili.
What!? I don’t think we’re responsible for that. I know it’s a partisan issue. I’ve been hearing about chocolate in that chili for so long. The chili recipe that’s in the book is Ethan’s. One of his friends actually grew up with the Kiradjieff brothers—like, they went to the same school. He went over to their house, and I guess—I think I’m getting this right—“Old Man Kiradjieff,” as he was known, would go down to the basement and get scoops of spices out of the basement. He would put the scoops into a paper bag and then take the paper bag to the chili parlor.

Ethan did his due diligence on it and really asked around. The recipe that’s in there is actually the result of a chili contest, which I guess he won. It’s funny, because he was also judging! It was a blind tasting, and he was like, oh yeah, this is Empress. And he picked his own chili. But apparently everybody else thought it was pretty decent, too.

 Excerpted from Joy of Cooking by John Becker and Megan Scott:

CINCINNATI CHILI COCKAIGNE

6 servings
There are hundreds of so-called original recipes for John Kiradjieff’s chili, which he served in Cincinnati’s first chili parlor, The Empress. We particularly like this version and can guarantee without questions that it is a faithful rendition. For skeptical or puzzled readers who have trouble squaring this chocolate-laced spaghetti topping with their notions of what a chili ought to be: We suggest you think of it as a Macedonian Bolognese sauce instead. In addition to the five “ways” of topping pasta with this chili, use as a filling for cheese Coneys.

Bring to boil in a large pot:
4 cups water

Add:
2 pounds ground beef chuck

Stir until separated, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Add:
2 medium onions, finely chopped
5 to 6 garlic cloves, chopped
One 15-ounce can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons salt*
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 large bay leaf
½ ounce unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped

Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 2½ hours. Cool, uncovered, and refrigerate overnight. The next day, skim off all or most of the fat and remove the bay leaf. Reheat the chili over medium-low heat.

To serve as a 2-Way, spoon the chili over:
Cooked spaghetti

For a 3-Way, add:
Grated medium or sharp Cheddar

For a 4-Way, sprinkle on top of the cheese:
Chopped onions

For a 5-Way, layer between the spaghetti and chili:
Cooked red kidney beans

Traditional sides include:
Oyster crackers
Hot pepper sauce

*Our recipes are written to use standard table salt unless otherwise specified. Fine sea salt or Morton’s kosher salt can be used without having to make any adjustments. If you wish to substitute Diamond kosher salt, use twice as much by volume as the recipe indicates.

Copyright © 2019. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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