Out Of The Frying Pan

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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.