A Missouri Woman Made History Re-Creating the Cookbook

An American woman desperate to fight off the misery of death and financial ruin decided to meet her predicament head-on with bold action – and she managed to revolutionize the cookbook publishing industry forever while saving her own bacon.

Her name was Irma S. Rombauer, a St. Louis, Missouri, high-society woman who had scarcely cooked a meal in her life. But that was before the Great Depression swooped down to destroy her family fortune. Just months after the stock market crash of 1929, Irma’s husband Edgar Rombauer committed suicide upon realizing he was wiped out financially.

Edgar had been a successful attorney and rising political figure when the American economy collapsed. Until then, he had provided his wife with a high-society lifestyle. Irma Rombauer had no need for kitchen skills because she had cooks and kitchen maids to handle it all for her.

But the widowed Mrs. Rombauer quickly realized that she needed to take action or lose what little she had left, including her very home. To everyone’s surprise, she decided to write a cookbook, self-publish it and go selling it door to door. It seemed like a desperate scheme.

The name of her publication was “The Joy of Cooking.” It remains today one of the most successful cookbook titles in history. In fact, The Joy of Cooking was so innovative and different, it powerfully influenced the way all cookbooks would be published from that time forward.

Mrs. Rombauer broke the mold by making her cookbook lighthearted and fun – she truly endeavored to put the “joy” into cooking. Until then, few women considered kitchen work “joyful.” Most cookbooks reflected that sense of scullery drudgery. Cookbooks then read more like grim field manuals than collections of beloved recipes that were fun to make and exciting to serve.

Mrs. Rombauer used her last pennies to print 3,000 copies. Fortunately, they sold so well, The Joy of Cooking was picked up by a major publisher and the rest is history.