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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 4, 2002

A new 'Joy' will turn back hands of time

By Russ Parsons
Los Angeles Times

Through the years with 'Joy'

1931: Irma Rombauer self-publishes her first recipe collection and sells 3,000 copies.

1936: Rombauer sells a revised and expanded edition of the book (and the copyright) to Bobbs-Merrill. It sells 50,000 copies.

1943: A new edition is published, including wartime rationing information. It sells 600,000 copies, including a revision in 1946 that removed the rationing information.

1951: Rombauer's daughter Marion Rombauer Becker joins the team and begins the transition from recipe collection to reference book. It sells 200,000 copies in one year.

1962: Rombauer dies and Bobbs-Merrill prints an error-riddled edition unapproved by the family, which nevertheless sells 150,000 copies in weeks. The family publishes a corrected edition in 1963 that sells more than 500,000 copies in four years.

1975: The "Becker edition" is published, including voluminous background information. It sells almost 600,000 copies in just two years and remains in print to this day.

1997: The "Guarnaschelli edition" includes contributions from more than 100 cookbook writers, chefs and recipe testers. It sells 1.5 million copies in five years.

— Russ Parsons

"The Joy of Cooking," one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time, is being reinvented-again.

It was last revised five years ago in a controversial $5 million project based on the work of an all-star cast of more than 100 chefs, writers and recipe developers. This time, the new edition will be a strictly mom-and-pop operation, pulled together by Ethan Becker, the grandson of the book's original author, and his wife, Susan.

It's not that the book isn't selling well — the 1997 revision has sold more than 1.5 million copies. But Becker, still smarting from the way his work had been ignored in the last go-round, has convinced Simon & Schuster to return "Joy" to its Midwestern family roots.

"What we're hoping to do is to bring the voice back, the family voice," Becker said. "I don't want to denigrate any of the work that was done by the cooking community on the last book, but I don't think it's quite as usable as some of the previous editions — it's not as user-friendly. What Susan and I have been saying to each other is that 'The Joy' is coming home."

The 1997 revision was one of the biggest cookbook stories of the decade. Working with a budget estimated at $5 million, a New York editor marshaled an army of more than 100 chefs, writers and recipe developers with the goal of creating a new American classic.

But despite the spectacular sales, it seemed almost everyone involved went away mad, including the editor. The book itself drew mixed reviews, with some praising its up-to-date style and others criticizing its concentration on trendy recipes rather than old favorites.

More substantial criticisms involved the omission of some important background material — the thing "Joy" had always been known for.

Plans for this new "Joy" — to be released in time for the book's 75th birthday in 2006 — are still in a very preliminary stage. The Beckers say it will be a blend of the 1997 revision and the previous editions. Like the last edition, it will be published by Simon & Schuster under its Scribner imprint. Beth Wareham will be the editor, Ethan Becker said. Wareham, who was the publicist on the 1997 book, declined to comment. Wareham has been an editor for two years and this is by far the biggest project she's worked on. This fall she has four "The Joy of Cooking" spinoff books coming out, two of which are based on material dropped from the '97 edition.

One of the most popular cookbooks of all time, with more than 15 million copies sold since it was first published in 1931, "The Joy of Cooking" has been a reliable friend for generations. It's the book beginners turn to when they want to roast a chicken; it's the place experienced cooks look for detailed information on such things as cuts of meat and types of flour.

But throughout the book's history, behind the placid domesticity of the recipes, "Joy" has roiled with controversy — million-dollar legal wrangles, rapacious businessmen, troubled inheritances and enough ill will to curdle milk.

This current revision is the latest in a chain that stretches back to 1931, when Irma Rombauer, a St. Louis housewife, took half of her inheritance from her late husband and sank it into a self-published cookbook (made up largely of other people's recipes, according to many; Rombauer herself was not a particularly good cook). The initial printing of 3,000 copies sold well, but Rombauer wanted more. In pursuit of that, she went to a major publisher, Bobbs-Merrill. Unfortunately, her business acumen was not equal to her ambition. Without the advice of an agent or lawyer, she signed a contract that assigned the publisher the book's copyright, in effect giving them full ownership of not only that edition but all future ones as well.

What followed was 60 years of legal wrangling by Rombauer and her heirs — first her daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, and then her grandson, Ethan Becker. In the meantime, the book was revised and updated roughly every five to 10 years. There were new editions in 1943, 1946, 1951, 1962, 1963 (largely correcting the error-riddled '62 that had been published without the family's permission) and 1975.

Yet so great was the antagonism between the family and the publishers that Ethan Becker refused to allow the book to be revised for more than 20 years after his mother's death in 1976.

Finally he was able to negotiate partial ownership of the copyright from Simon & Schuster, which had wound up with the rights, and he began yet another revision. Maria Guarnaschelli drew the assignment to edit the book. Responsible for the cookbook careers of Patricia Wells and Rick Bayless, Guarnaschelli has a well-earned reputation for abrasiveness, as well as editorial excellence.

Guarnaschelli took Becker's work and immediately shoved it aside (she said afterward that his contribution to the '97 "Joy" was limited to a few recipes). Becker says he didn't even see much of the book before it was published.

"I think that it's no secret that Maria Guarnaschelli alienated, humiliated and insulted the Beckers to such an extent that everyone is reeling from the experience still," says Anne Mendelson, author of "Stand Facing the Stove," a history of "The Joy of Cooking" and an early participant in the 1997 revision.

While Becker still received author's credit (and the family trust received $2 million of the advance), Guarnaschelli recruited an all-star cast of cookbook writers and chefs and assigned them to write and rewrite one another's work.

There was so much material at the end that entire sections of the book had to be cut at the last minute. Much of what was included bore little or no resemblance to the beloved books so many Americans had learned to cook from.

"I know there are whole chapters of important stuff that just had to be left out," Mendelson said. "Just today I was trying to look up some information on yeast. I went to the book, turned to the index, and there was no entry under yeast. ... The completion of that project was an unholy mess."

"This was like a production of 'Aida,' " Guarnaschelli said at the time. "So we got rid of a few elephants — what can I do?"

Today, she insists that the whole controversy was overblown. "The critics consisted of two groups: those who weren't asked to contribute and those who were, and though they were paid, their stuff wasn't used the way they thought it should have been," Guarnaschelli said.

The new version will follow a completely different process, says Becker, though much will be retained from the '97 book, including some of the material that had been dropped at the last minute.

"A bunch from the last book will be retained," Becker said. "There are a lot of very good recipes in that book. At this point, we have submitted a synopsis and chapters list, but we're still very much in the early stages of deciding what goes and what stays."

Most important, Becker said, "This time around, we're going to have a really good working relationship with the publisher."