Way back in July 2021, I wrote a blog post about how cooking your day-in-day-out meals can be fun, if you don’t get too hung up in the snobbery of hobby cooking. I even wrote a follow-up post about comfort food. And here I am, still at it. Still searching for those perfect recipes that are tasty, nutritious, and enjoyable enough for me to think, “Cooking? Oh, Joy!”
The Classic Five
I read somewhere that most cooks really only have five basic meal plans in their repertoire. A standard week’s dinner menu might read:
Sunday: Pot Roast
Monday: Reheated Pot Roast
Tuesday: Pot Roast Tacos
Wednesday: Baked Chicken
Friday: Take Out, Because, C’mon, it’s Friday!
Or maybe that’s just me. Cooking for one can be a challenge when I want to cook something that renders more than two servings. Even pizza gets old (really old) after the second day. That’s why I’m always on the hunt for new things I like to cook, like to eat, and that also hold well into the next day or two.
What’s in Your Library?
I have a small collection of basic cookbooks, from the classic, orange-covered Betty Crocker’s Cookbook—mine dates to 1979 and features a lot of Jell-O molds—to chef-driven entries like Jamie’s Food Revolution, by Jamie Oliver.
My mother was an advocate of Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, which has apparently been “new” for at least 75 years. Jan even has an old copy that belonged to Mom’s mother, so well-worn and stuffed with recipes clipped from the newspaper that it was kept in a bag to prevent it from falling apart. It dates to some early era before they started using the classic red and white checks on the cover.
But how many of the recipes did Mother actually cook? Certainly not the pot roast, and probably not spaghetti, either, since she seemed to think Italian food was “too spicy.” Mom was really good at a lot of things—she was an excellent art teacher, for instance—but cooking was not where her imagination found fertile soil. And somebody should have taken that electric skillet away from her years before it died. For real.
Finding the Joy
Let’s just say that I don’t have a deep legacy of great family recipes to rely on at suppertime. Is it any wonder I perked right up when novelist Hallie Ephron wrote about her own mother’s cooking skills in a recent post on the Jungle Red Writers blog? Hallie’s mother, who was never one to cook at all, struck culinary gold when she came upon a recipe for chicken paprika in Irma S. Rombauer’s classic Joy of Cooking.
I realized that I had known about Joy for Cooking for eons—it was first published in 1931—but had never owned a copy, or even spent much time browsing through it in the bookstore. I went straight to my computer and ordered it for my cookbook library.
Oh, my goodness! It’s not just a cookbook. It’s an encyclopedia of cooking, with detailed chapter introductions about ingredients and prep work, thousands of recipes in quite small type, no chapter divisions or thumb tabs to guide you, and no fancy color photographs of carefully styled food. What it is, is comprehensive. You want to know how to hard boil an egg? It’s in there. You want to know how to roast a pheasant? It’s in there, too.
What it isn’t? It’s not very daring when it comes to spices. As I dipped in and out of the various chapters, I noticed that seasonings often began and ended with salt and pepper—at least on the core Middle American White Folks recipes. Mother would have loved it.
Purist or Adventurer?
Joy of Cooking does offer a wide array of variations on some basic comfort food recipes, however. People who follow this blog my recall that I’m a purist when it comes to deviled eggs. Rombauer starts out that way, but includes optional spices like chili sauce and curry powder (yes, salt and pepper are in there, too). Plus a whole long list of “additions” including anchovy filets, garlic, smoked salmon, dill pickles, pesto, several kinds of onions, capers, caviar, and bacon.
I was appalled. My good friend, who has a more adventurous palate, cheered when I told her. She makes her deviled eggs with Grey Poupon mustard. Her husband and son-in-law like mine better, but it’s a free country.
Cooking? Oh, Joy!
And that’s the bottom line, really. The joy of cooking comes from learning how to cook things, then discovering how to combine the basics into tastier, more adventuresome dishes. Books like Joy of Cooking and Jamie’s Food Revolution aren’t just about finding new recipes. They’re about mastering new skills, so you can develop your own new recipes, and raise that dry, crusty pot roast your mother fed you up to succulent, fork-tender, new heights of ginger and soy sauce with orange slices. Or whatever strikes your fancy come pot roast day. So, the next time you step into the kitchen, be joyful!
All montages are by Jan S. Gephardt. Photos for G.’s “Classic Five” came from a variety of sources, all of whom we fervently thank! They are: Food Network for the pot roast. Taste of Home for the Mexican pot roast tacos. The blog “I Heart Naptime” for the roasted chicken. Delish, and photographer Parker Feierbach, for the spaghetti. And The Recipe Critic for the homemade pizza. Note all of these sources include their respective recipes! Many thanks to Amazon and At-A-Glance, for the calendar background (featuring this very month!).
Cookbook covers for Betty Crocker and Jamie Oliver are courtesy of their respective Amazon pages. The background photo of the stovetop full of good things cooking was taken by photographer Zubaida Abdallah, AKA “zouzou1,” via 123rf.
Our grandma’s copy of My Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook (the 1935 edition) is considerably more food-stained and stuffed with recipes clipped from many sources over several decades. Unfortunately, it’s also in archival storage and Jan wasn’t able to access it quickly enough to photograph it for this post. Abe Books provided the photo. The Harvest Gold West Bend Electric Skillet in our photo is no longer available on Etsy, but we appreciate the access to the image.
Finally, G. took the photo of eggs she herself deviled (she also baked the apple pie in the background). This photo originally ran in her blog post “Stuff That Works.” The (latest in a long succession) cover for Joy of Cooking is courtesy of Amazon. Many thanks to all!