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A Heaping Cupful of Conflict

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For millions of Americans, the “Joy of Cooking” is a beloved kitchen companion, a friendly source of advice on everything from how to roast a chicken to a recipe for the best brownies ever.

Now this icon of domesticity, dreamed up in 1931 by Irma Rombauer, a St. Louis matron of allegedly indifferent culinary skills, has undergone its first major make-over in 20 years.

Under the direction of a hotshot--some would also say hot-tempered--New York editor and the input of more than 100 of the country’s top chefs, cookbook writers and recipe testers, a new “Joy of Cooking” hits the stores today.

Clearly, publisher Simon & Schuster’s desire to bring “Joy” into the 21st century was destined to be less a job of revision than of reinvention. Add a volatile mix of too many cooks in the literary kitchen plus an impossible deadline and you have a stew of bruised egos and malicious gossip.

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Controversy is nothing new for the “Joy of Cooking.” The book, while full of family values Midwestern homemaking, has a history worthy of Danielle Steel: A plucky widow, rapacious businessmen, epic legal wrangles, troubled inheritances and millions of dollars lost and won are all part of the Rombauer family saga played out across three generations.

And now there is the other woman.

The newest revision has the name of Rombauer scion Ethan Becker on the cover, joining that of his grandmother and his mother, Marion Rombauer Becker, who had nurtured revisions of the book about every 10 years until their deaths in 1962 and 1976, respectively.

But there’s no escaping the fact that for the first time “Joy” belongs not to the Rombauer Becker family but to an outsider, editor Maria Guarnaschelli of Simon & Schuster’s Scribner imprint.

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Widely acknowledged to be among the best cookbook editors in America, she is also considered demanding, abusive and so pushy that she pulled Becker aside for an editorial conference on his wedding night.

“Yeah, well, why not?” she says, breaking into hysterical laughter. “Hey, look, this revision waits for no man.”

Guarnaschelli’s manner and her method of dealing with writers has created a tempest in a teacup, even for the incestuous world of cookbook writing.

“I think ‘Joy’ had become quaint, and I think a lot of people who cherish it sentimentalize it, which is a sure sign of its demise,” she says. “The idea of this new revision is to [update] the reference material that was always there and to give recipes within the chapters that are brand new and will make people want to cook from this book as much as they want to refer to it.”

There’s no doubt that Guarnaschelli’s book is different from the one Rombauer first wrote. Rombauer canvassed friends and relatives for favorite recipes, then put them together in her own neighborly voice. She spent about $3,000--half of her inheritance from her husband--to print 3,000 copies.

Guarnaschelli reportedly spent $5 million of Simon & Schuster’s money. Writers’ fees ranged from $7,000 to a reported $60,000. A nearly $2-million advance went to the Rombauer Becker family. (The average advance for cookbook authors is more like $40,000).

It seemed that every cookbook writer in America was either working on the revision or wondering why she or he had not been asked.

As stories of Guarnaschelli’s behavior began to spread, the chosen ones began wondering if they were so lucky after all.

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“I have never heard anybody talk to other people like that in the way of business,” says Anne Mendelson, author of “Stand Facing the Stove,” a biography of the Rombauer Becker family and history of the “Joy of Cooking.” Mendelson was a consultant in the early stages of the project. “I just couldn’t believe my ears--the screaming, the bullying, it was real fishwife stuff.”

‘I Have Never Known Anybody Like Her’

Author Betty Fussell, food historian and one of the string of principal writers hired for the revision, says Guarnaschelli is simply indescribable. “I have never known anybody like her. Period. That’s all I will say.” Moments later, she reconsiders: “Actually, I know a lot of people like her, though none quite so violently that way. Like a lot of people who lose their tempers easily, she forgets almost immediately [what she was mad about in the first place]. She thinks she can always woo people back by flattery.”

Guarnaschelli shrugs off these complaints. “I’m a powerful woman,” she says. “Even my husband has told me he’s a little afraid of me. I’m unconventional. I’m relentless. I’m passionate. When I believe in something, I’m like a Shiite warrior. That’s frightening to people. Maybe in another century I would have been a witch and burned at the stake.”

Rombauer herself was a strong woman, but in the beginning of her “Joy” career she was ignorant of the ways of business.

In 1936, when she decided to push for a wider audience, Rombauer signed with major hometown publishing house Bobbs-Merrill to print a larger, revised edition. Negotiating without benefit of agent or lawyer, she signed a contract that gave the book’s copyright to the publisher rather than to herself.

This was a mistake, Mendelson says, that cost Rombauer and her family hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of dollars in royalties.

The company’s ownership of the copyright allowed it to control all past and future editions of the book. Bobbs-Merrill waved this fact in the family’s face whenever it served the firm’s purpose, often threatening to bring in new writers if the company didn’t get its way.

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Rombauer may have been naive, but she was no patsy. Endless rounds of legal threats and counter-threats ensued, lasting until the publishing house’s demise in 1985.

Ownership of “Joy” has passed through many hands since Rombauer Becker completed the last revision in 1975. Macmillan bought Bobbs-Merrill in 1985; Macmillan was bought by British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell in 1988. Macmillan was purchased by Paramount Publishing in 1993. Paramount passed the rights to “Joy” to its Simon & Schuster publishing company and its Scribner unit.

Until Simon & Schuster came along, Ethan Becker, 52, who has acted as guardian of the family legacy since his mother’s death, felt that none of the publishers gave “Joy” the respect it was due. “I felt there was no real wish to enhance the book under the previous regimes, though there was no doubt they wanted to exploit it,” he said. “From the get-go with [Simon & Schuster], I knew they wanted to do the right thing by the book.

“When I found out Maria was going to be handling the book, I did some research and found she really knew what she was talking about. Everybody I talked to said she has only one goal in life: to produce extremely good books.”

Becker’s greatest contribution to the legacy of the “Joy of Cooking” may be found on the title page. After long negotiations with Simon & Schuster, the Becker family gained ownership of at least a piece of the copyright for the first time since 1935.

The transfer of copyright may be one of the few things that have gone smoothly for the family. Even the seemingly simple act of the mother handing the book on to her daughter was contentious. Rombauer was a tart, chatty recipe collector, and her version of the book was treasured for its approachable, irreverent tone. In a day when the model for cookbooks was still the no-nonsense domestic manual exemplified by “Mrs. Beeton” and “The Boston Cooking School” (popularly known as “Fannie Farmer”), the sheer friendliness of “Joy” was one of its main selling points.

Rombauer Becker was more serious-minded, and her “Joy” was intended more as a reference work. “There are people who think [her books were] a bastardization of the true ‘Joy,’ ” says Colman Andrews, editor of Saveur magazine. “I’m sure there are people who will go back even further and say there hasn’t been a good one since 1936.”

Whatever the tone, the public purchased the book in enormous numbers throughout its revisions. More than 14 million copies have been sold, making it America’s third best-selling cookbook ever.

It has been said to be one of the three most important cookbooks of the middle 20th century, representing to the rest of the country what “The Settlement House” cookbook was to Central European immigrants and “The Boston Cooking School Cookbook” was to New England cooks.

All of which explains Guarnaschelli’s attraction to the project. She became a power at her previous publisher, William Morrow, when her work with the best-selling Jeff “The Frugal Gourmet” Smith took off. She leveraged her influence at the company into acquiring some of the best books of the last decade, including “The Cake Bible” by Rose Levy Beranbaum, the grilling publications of Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby, volumes on French food by Patricia Wells and works on Mexican cooking by Chicago chef Rick Bayless.

“The minute she heard Simon & Schuster were the new publishers of the ‘Joy of Cooking,’ that was it, that was her destiny,” Mendelson says. “That was going to be Maria’s ticket to immortality.”

The lure of history was a tool Guarnaschelli used in bringing writers to the project. “She just sort of swept me up,” says Pam Anderson, executive editor at Cooks Illustrated magazine and one of the principal writers on the project. “You think, ‘Oh God, this is such a historical event and I can be part of it.’ I didn’t even talk to my agent. I just said yes without even talking about money. That was my mistake. But you know how she is: She’s either fondling you or she’s beating you up.”

In her defense, Guarnaschelli says she was faced with a huge task and an impossible deadline. Originally, she was supposed to have completed her revision of the 2,600-recipe book in 2 1/2 years. It came in one year late.

In order to meet the deadline, the original plan seems to have been to have cooks write about their specialties, then filter those chapters through a primary writer, who would give it a single, unifying “Joy” voice.

By the time the work was done, though, at least three primary writers had fled, leaving it to Guarnaschelli and a small coterie of trusted helpers to complete the book in a last-minute fit of writing and rewriting.

“At one point Maria sent me back a chapter saying it was horrible and had to be completely rewritten,” says Sylvia Thompson, a leading gardening and cooking writer who was one of the final handful. “When I looked at it, I realized it was one of my original chapters that had been rewritten by somebody else.”

So frantic was the action at the end that entire chapters were rewritten and whole groups of chapters were eliminated after the book was in bound galley--normally a stage at which only minimal copy editing changes are made.

Indeed, the book’s many contributors will probably be among the first in line at the bookstores today, anxious to find out what parts of their work made it into the final version.

Guarnaschelli has little sympathy for the disgruntled.

“Well, we paid them and we credited them. What else can we do?” she asks. “It’s sort of like ‘Who puts on a production involving 130 people and everyone winds up happy?’ This was like a production of ‘Aida.’ So we got rid of a few elephants, what can I do?”

‘Strong Personalities Never Bothered Me’

Her supporters--and there are many--point to an editor passionate about her work laboring under extreme deadlines.

“I don’t have a lot of truck with the bellyaching masses here,” says Doe Coover, a cookbook agent representing several authors who contributed to “Joy.” “I don’t mean to be mean about it, but this was an enormous collaborative effort. No one was given the illusion that there was going to be artistic or intellectual ownership here. It was always work-for-hire and it was always going to be put through one sieve and then another sieve until it was done.”

“Strong personalities never bothered me any,” Becker says. “Both of my parents were like that, and so were my parents’ friends. I like strong personalities. That’s where you get good things.”

And he thinks the new “Joy” is a good thing. With the expertise of the revision’s many authors, there’s even more background and reference material than in Rombauer Becker’s books. In addition, a very ‘90s selection of ethnic and specialty recipes reflects the way people eat today.

“Mom would have liked this book. Mother was not much in the entertainment business, but was more in the knowledge business.

“And while there are a tremendous number of very good personal books out there now--personal and friendly in same sense as Granny--Mother felt the real value was in being an encyclopedic book. She always saw the ‘Joy’s’ place as being more of an American ‘Larousse Gastronomique,’ though a much friendlier version.”

Actually, it will probably have to be both. To sell the number of books Scribner needs to sell (the first printing is 500,000 copies--astronomical for a cookbook), mere information may not be enough. Judging by “Joy’s’ ” history, all of the furor will mean little outside the small world of cookbook writers.

“Gratifyingly, how well this book sells will depend on whether the book’s any damn good or not,” says Nach Waxman, owner of the famed New York cookbook store Kitchen Arts and Letters.

“If it’s a book that people love and find useful, it’ll be stupendous. If people think it’s simply another corporate effort to produce something marketable, it may succeed for a few years but then people will quit buying it.

* ‘JOY’ IN THE KITCHEN: Forget the controversy, how is the food? A look at the recipes and how they work in the new “Joy of Cooking.” H3

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“The Joy of Cooking” Timeline

1931: Irma Rombauer, widowed society matron and average cook, spends half of her remaining inheritance to privately publish 3,000 copies of “The Joy of Cooking.”

1936: Rombauer takes her revised and expanded manuscript to publishing house Bobbs-Merrill. It prints new edition but keeps copyright for itself. More than 60 years of arguments begin, fueled by success of “Joy,” which sells more than 50,000 copies by 1943.

1943: New revision includes more recipes and wartime rationing information. “Joy” sells more than 600,000 copies by 1947.

1951: Rombauer’s daughter Marion Rombauer Becker, illustrator of previous “Joy” editions, becomes co-author of book. “Joy” sells 200,000 copies in one year.

1956: With Rombauer incapacitated due to a stroke, Becker begins solo revision of “Joy,” a lengthy process of missed deadlines and acrimonious dealings with Bobbs-Merrill.

1962: Rombauer dies. Bobbs-Merrill prints error-ridden unauthorized edition of “Joy,” which Becker discovers upon returning from mother’s funeral service. 150,000 first printing sells out within weeks.

1963: Rombauer-approved “Joy” printed without fanfare. Previously chatty “Joy” now more of a cooking encyclopedia; sells 556,000 copies in four years.

1975: New revision includes more background material. Sells 570,000 copies in two years.

1976: Becker dies. “Joy” sales continue strong, but Becker family denies permission for further revisions until 1994, when work on new edition begins.

1997: Sixth revision published by Scribner, edited by Maria Guarnaschelli. More than 100 cookbook authors and recipe testers contribute to project. Irma Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker are listed as co-authors.

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Best-Selling Cookbooks

The most popular cookbooks, with date first published and number of copies printed:

1. “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook” and “Betty Crocker’s New Cookbook.” 1950. 45 million.

2. “Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book” and “Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook.” 1930. 31.6 million.

3. “Joy of Cooking.” 1931. 14 million.

4. “In the Kitchen With Rosie: Oprah’s Favorite Recipes.” 1994. 5.2 million.

5. “Crockery Cookery.” 1975. 5 million.

6. “Better Homes and Gardens Eat & Stay Slim."1968. 4.1 million.

7. “The Boston Cooking School Cookbook” and “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.” 1896. 3.2 million.

8. “Better Homes and Gardens New Junior Cookbook.” 1955. 2.6 million.

9. “Better Homes and Gardens Cooking for Two” and “Better Homes and Gardens Great Cooking for Two.” 1968. 2.4 million.

10. “Better Homes and Gardens Home Made Cookies” and “Better Homes and Gardens Cookies Cookies Cookies.” 1975. 2.6 million.

11. “Better Homes and Gardens Mexican Cookbook” and “Better Homes and Gardens Mexican Cooking.” 1977. 2.2 million.

12. “The Silver Palate Cookbook.” 1982. 2.2 million.

13. “Moosewood Cookbook.” 1977. 2 million.

Source: Publisher estimates

Note: Some titles changed upon revision


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