Cooking's still a joy, but -- sob! -- there's little of it in the new 'Joy of Cooking'

November 16, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

The American food world is agog or aghast over "The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking," by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker. (Scribner. 1136 pages. $30) It has been made to succeed "Joy of Cooking," by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker (Bobbs-Merrill, 849 pages in 1962 edition).

First published in 1931, various editions have sold more than 14 million copies. The last new one, in 1975, was splendid, though I stick to the 1962 edition, which to me is the Classic.

The new book is the product of a $5 million investment, including the cost of contributions from some 150 professional cooks, nutritionists, consultants, marketeers and focus groups. There is little or nothing left from the original Irma Rombauer work, and precious little from her daughter's, or grandson's.

I cook a lot and have all my life, joyfully. I have bought, used and given away perhaps 300 cooking books and have kept about 40 permanently. I find that - although my most treasured tutelage has been from great Italian cooks - I use two books in regular practicality: the 1962 "Joy of Cooking" and "Larousse Gastronomique," the French culinary encyclopedia. I have just spent the better parts of four days with the new and old "Joy," comparing, reading, poking about, sizzling, trying out this and that, looking things up.

The previous editions were great and humble, entertaining and useful, written in clear and celebratory and loving language, with solid, time-tested recipes. The 1997 edition is entirely new. It speaks with not quite the elegance of a software installation package, and moves heavily toward fad-food recipes, multiculture entries from restaurants whose fans refer to them as "at the edge" and "darling." There is a word for it: Yuppychow.

Insipid prose

The prose of the previous editions was graced with charm, clarity, civility, evolving voices of spontaneity, rhythm. Text in the new edition has almost all the attributes of a government policy manual; to call its prose wooden would be to libel oak.

Witness the very first words on chicken in each book:

New: "Properly defined, the term poultry means a farm- raised, as opposed to wild, bird produced for meat or eggs. Thus all guinea fowl, quail, partridge and pheasant that have been bought rather than shot are poultry, for, by federal law, any bird offered for sale in the United States must be farm-raised."

Classic: "The chicken is a world citizen; duck and geese cosmopolites. Along with a number of the game birds which migrate from continent to continent, they are international favorites. And each nation has learned to cook them in a manner distinctively its own...."

I have read Internal Revenue Service advisories with more joy and more useful information than most of the New's entries.

What the New does have and the Classic did not draws a clear line. There are dozens, probably several hundred recipes for dishes not even mentioned in the earlier "Joys": Crudites, shrimp pad thai, much of it faddish, international potpourri stuff.

Witness: The New has seven full pages on tofu. It has seven pages as well on different peppers, with 28 illustrations. The Classic mentioned several of them, in appropriate places, but not in a separate shrine.

The heart of "Joy" was always (up to now) in its bold, precise and richly useful introductions to foods and cooking methods.

Here, for example, on page 381, is the Classic's opening words on meat: "When the novice approaches the meat counter, she may also approach a state of panic. The friendly informative butcher of a generation ago has often been succeeded by an automaton, mysteriously cutting, grinding and packaging behind a glass partition. ..."

Here is New, on page 637, same subject: "According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the term meat refers to the muscle of cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats. Of these, beef and pork have long prevailed in North America and their popularity has risen steadily since the first settlers brought over a few pigs and cows...."

A hundred other side-by-side entries yield identical contrasts.

Piccalilli's still there, thank goodness, and the recipes are almost identical except for the translation from homey American items ("4 medium-sized green peppers" - Page 783/Classic) into weights and measures, ("1 1/3 pounds green bell peppers" - Page 64/New).

Spurning the natural

The Classic has very practical instructions and recipes for hTC preparing and cooking squirrel, opossum, bear, raccoon, muskrat, woodchuck and beaver - and the New spurns them all. Small loss, you may argue, as you think of the tearful joy of anti-blood-sport terrorists speeding to $50-a-head Soho tofu dens in their Mercedes autos.

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