The Joy of Cooking (in Africa)…

My storm-tossed and weather-beaten 1974 edition of the Joy of Cooking appears shabby and sad beside the new shiny 1999 volume. But tattered and stained as it is, sadness is most definitely not a feeling that springs to mind.  Instead it jolts me back to happy times and recalls a hundred splendid food occasions.  My first attempt at chilli con carne in a tiny make-shift African bush kitchen, the quiches I made for a lingering brunch under a bougainvillea-covered pergola, the banana bread created to sustain us on our expedition into the Tanzanian hinterland while searching for “The Tree Where Man Was Born”.  And my very first scones for that simple but idyllic OUT-OF-AFRICA picnic on the Ngong Hills.. was barely 22 and lived in Kenya then. Having just moved in with my boyfriend (a handsome bush pilot who was to become my husband) I decided it was time that I acquired some cookery skills.  The old lady who owned the Nairobi Bookshop persuaded me that the JOY OF COOKING was the right book and assured me it would give me all the knowledge I needed.  Its pricetag, 80/- Shillings (about  £4 at the time), written in her hand, is still inside its cover..

I devoured that book and took its every word seriously: …“we are confident that after you have used this book steadily for a few months, paying due attention to our symbols and especially to the “pointers to success”, you will master the skills of a cook…”   it stated – the symbols referring to such variables as “altitude” and “outdoor” cooking which, considering that we lived 7000 tropical feet above sea-level and often cooked on campfires, was invaluable advice. With one theatre and two cinemas that changed programmes once a month if you were lucky, Kenya’s expats entertained themselves by throwing parties – no excuse was ever needed. Food and alcohol were cheap and JOY offered an unlimited supply of exciting ideas for meals as well as drinks. We had an ancient wooden ice-cream churner and JOY could always be relied upon for expert advice for rich, smooth American ice-creams – not to mention  the waffles made with one of those American irons I bought cheaply from a second-hand shop in town, no doubt left behind by some homeward-bound UN worker.  JOY also covered ingredients that were then hardly heard of in Europe but that were widely available and plentiful in East Africa – such as avocados and limes, papayas and sweet potatoes, aubergines and custard apples. One of my ‘signature dishes’ derived from JOY was an incredibly delicious oyster soup (unchanged in the updated JOY) which called for several pints of chucked oysters as well as a few pints of cream..

41RKDb4bSVL._UX250_The original JOY OF COOKING was self-published in 1931 by the recently widowed Irma Rombauer  of Cincinatti, Ohio – it was a compilation of up-to-date culinary information and full-proof recipes that she had collected from friends, neighbours, newspapers and magazines. Irma wrote the book at a time when domestic help was becoming a thing of the past. Women from all walks of life found themselves back in the kitchen and JOY helped to turn home cooking from a chore into a pleasure. It became a kitchen classic in America and made its first appearance on European bookshelves in 1946 – with advice on how to cope with post-war rationing. Marion Rombauer Becker, Irma’s daughter, subsequently updated and revised the book in 1963 and now her son Ethan Becker, Irma’s grandson, has put together this sixth and latest edition – complete with added chapters on contemporary food and nutritional information.

The symbols and pointers of the first editions have disappeared from the new publication and outdated recipes have made room for new ones that reflect contemporary lifestyles and tastes. But the helpful hand-drawn illustrations are still there and so is the encyclopaedic amount of background information and advice – from recipes for the gluten-sensitive and lactose-intolerant to tips on how to deal with anything from sea-urchins to laying tables. There is more emphasis on freshness, health and convenience in this edition, though tradition has not been forgotten – recipe classics such as Steak and Mushroom Pie or American Chocolate Brownies sit comfortably beside those for Italian Risottos, Indian Sag Paneer and Tuscan Bread and Tomato Soup. The new JOY OF COOKING has been three and a half years in the making and it remains one of the most practical, all-purpose guides on every aspect of cooking.

The book I bought in Nairobi promised me that I would eventually “revel in a sense of new-found freedom” and more importantly, “regain the priceless private joy of living, dining and sharing…” There’s no doubt that the knowledge and confidence I gained through JOY has given me that freedom. And yes, I believe the book helped to cultivate that thrill I get every time I share my table with others. Thinking back, it took me a few years, rather than months, to become a competent cook.  But one thing is for sure: it could not have been done it without JOY.