Irma Rombauer has helped millions of people tame the cooking “beast” with her cookbook, The Joy of Cooking. Before Julia Child, Rombauer produced a useable cookbook for the 1930’s housewife. It was affordable, well-organized and included step-by-step recipes designed to save time in the kitchen.
Irma (von Starkloff) Rombauer was born to a prominent German family in St. Louis in 1877. She attended private schools and a Swiss boarding school in her teen years. She married at 22 and didn’t attend college. Instead, she became active in social clubs around St. Louis, actively seeking knowledge in study groups and civic projects. She eventually became president of The Wednesday Club.
Irma was in her 50’s when her husband killed himself and left her a widow. She had two grown kids and a cookbook manuscript that no publisher would touch. She and Marion (her daughter) moved into an apartment at 5712 Cabanne Avenue in St. Louis after her husband’s death. Marion illustrated the cover for the book, a simple drawing of St. Martha, the patron saint of cooking who weilded a mop to fight off the dragon Tarasque. Not able to get any publisher interested, Irma paid to have 3,ooo copies printed in 1931 and sold them for $3.00 each. Soon she found a publisher for her book, Bobbs-Merrill, and they would together produce the most successful cookbook in American History.
The Joy of Cooking saw such success because it made cooking easier for women in the 1930s. Kitchens were getting smaller with technological advances and women were more involved in activities outside of the home. Irma included her own recipes as well as those from women in her social clubs, church and family. She wrote the recipies clearly, introducing ingredients as they were needed. Included in the recipies were convenience foods like canned soup and Jell-O.
Irma and Marion worked together to update the book until Irma’s death in 1962 (buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, Lot 5652, Block 270). After that, Marion and her son took on the task. Home cooks for generations have been able to reference the book for information that made their lives easier. Irma recognized that not all women want to live in the kitchen, and produced a cookbook to help women get out of the kitchen and on to other interests.
Irma’s spot on the St. Louis Walk of Fame
Irma was featured in the 2009 movie Julie and Julia