Gin & Ingenuity: Drinking Through the Joy of Cooking

The current keepers of what has become one of America's most iconic cookbooks trace the 82-year evolution of Joy's cocktail section, the celebrity-studded cocktail parties that informed it and the gin and juice that fueled it.

It might surprise casual readers of the Joy of Cooking to learn the first recipe to appear in the first edition (published during Prohibition, in 1931) is for a juiced-up Gin Cocktail meant to mask the flavor of bathtub gin. It’s accompanied by a note that reads: “Most cocktails containing liquor are made today with gin and ingenuity. In brief, take an ample supply of the former and use your imagination.”

Most of us can agree that drinks should be so at home in the procession of a good meal, with good people, that they form part of an unbroken thread of conviviality. But amidst Prohibition—and the fallout that lingered long after repeal—Joy, a cookbook that seems as though it’s always been comfortable in its own skin, did not arrive at this understated conclusion easily. But by tracing the evolution of its “Cocktails” section and, by extension, the progression and sensibilities of its authors, we can gain a better sense of not only the cookbook’s evolution, but also the evolution of American culture as it relates to drink.

In 1930, Joy‘s author, Irma Rombauer, was a middle-aged St. Louis society woman. While out shopping one morning, her husband committed suicide with a double-barreled shotgun. Irma had no marketable skills (nor the disposition to acquire any, if truth be told) and about $6,000 to her name. With the Great Depression playing the wolf at the door, Irma’s exigent question was: How will I survive?

As the fourth-generation keepers of this time-tested cookbook, we’ve had a chance to pore over 82-years’ worth of Joy archives and get to know its founder (John’s great-grandmother) and previous keepers. We can only guess at the machinations that led Irma to choose “cookbook author” as her new profession. She was, after all, not much of a cook. And by “not much” we mean not at all. She was known to whip up decent canapés and a chocolate cake now and again, but she was far too much of a socialite to spend time in the kitchen. Cooking was a means to an end for her.

But in the midst of these very hungry years, Irma Rombauer spent $3,000—half of her savings—to self-publish the Joy of Cooking, which, 82 years later, has gone through eight editions, three authors and sold millions of copies.

The alchemy that occurs when good, unfussy food is paired with drink, and loved ones, is something that a recipe can never capture. All preciousness and whimsy aside, the real joy is in the doing. This is perhaps the most important thing we learned during our tenure in Tennessee: Joy‘s significance and charm is that it is an invitation. It is not a demand or a guilt trip or a textbook. It is a steady hand and a warm voice and a full glass of wine when you need it.

By 1936, when Joy’s second edition went to press, spirits were once again legal to sell and consume. Irma announced, “The day is past for cocktails made with gin and ingenuity only. We may now enjoy a multitude of more regular and less inspirational concoctions.” Appropriately, the previous edition’s Gin Cocktail recipe—which calls for more than double the amount of juice to gin—was rejiggered for a higher-quality spirit.

Although readers could legally enjoy these “inspirational concoctions,” Irma was careful to cloak them in respectability. Thus, the cocktail recipes were shunted to the back of the book. The headnote to the second edition’s “Cocktails” section reads:

“To give this book the impression of sobriety and stability it deserves, the alcoholic cocktails have been relegated to the chapter on Beverages. There they may blush unseen by those who disapprove of them and they may be readily found in the company of many other good drinks by those who do not.”

We imagine this sudden politesse came from Irma’s knowledge that her new and expanded Joy would reach a much larger, and perhaps more conservative, audience than her brazenly-boozy introduction to the 1931 edition.

In 1946, the Cocktails chapter in Joy‘s fourth edition continued to ripen. Most notably, it contains a detailed exposition of the Mint Julep, including a lengthy New Yorker anecdote about a hapless bartender who received mixed messages on the “authentic” way to make a julep, instructions on how to frost a julep cup, a recipe for the Mint Julep and how to make Juleps in quantity for parties.

By 1953, Irma’s daughter and son-in-law, Marion and John, were heavily involved in revising Joy. John was a modernist architect by trade, and Marion was active in the Cincinnati art scene, most notably as the director of the Cincinnati Modern Art Society. The two were a worldly and inseparable pair, and where Irma gave the book a lively, playful undertone, Marion and John provided polish and style. We suspect the following passage was written by John, as it was his steady hand that did most of the pouring:

“The cocktail is probably an American invention, and most certainly a typically American kind of drink. Whatever mixtures you put together—and part of the fascination with cocktail making is the degree of inventiveness it seems to encourage—hold fast to a few general principles. The most important of these is to keep the quantity of the basic ingredients—gin, whisky, rum, etc.—up to about 60% of the total drink, never below half.”

Guided by this stratagem, Marion and John plied many illustrious guests (including Alexander Calder, Buckminster Fuller and John Cage) with good food and strong drink at their home, which they called “Cockaigne” after the mythical land of plenty. Their young son, Ethan, was tasked with beating sacks full of ice into fine shards on the back patio for these affairs.

The book benefited tremendously from the couple’s intimacy with the art world. Their modernist aesthetic is still visible in Joy, but it is most notable in the 1950s and ’60s editions. John himself designed the abstract, geometric dust jacket for the 1953 edition, and Marion fended off the publisher’s efforts to include photos in the book, using the argument that it would date it. One glance at this era’s food photography, with its lurid gelatin salads and putrid-looking loaves of compacted meat, it’s clear that Marion was right.

But perhaps more importantly, along with a modernist aesthetic came a modernist sensibility. Rather than burying alcoholic drinks in the back of the book, the couple restored them to the front. The 1963 “Cocktails” section begins:

“In past editions we…have approached this subject rather apologetically—after all, there was a time when selling or serving alcoholic refreshment was considered disreputable in America. But here and now we drop all subterfuge, and frankly concede that “something to drink” is becoming with us an almost invariable concomitant of at least the company dinner, and have boldly enlarged this section of the book.”

Gone are the cagey and veiled references to alcohol. The 1963 edition eschews prudishness and tells us the origins, aging processes and peculiarities of spirits. Once the cocktails coverage found its footing, little changed in the intervening years. The sections dealing with vodka, whiskey and rum have grown, but the nuts and bolts (or screwdrivers and slings, if you will) of the chapter are less important than its bearing on home cooks.

Three years ago, when we became full-time Joy employees, we moved to rural Tennessee to live near Ethan Becker, Joy’s third-generation author and John’s father. We began a complicated apprenticeship in which the days were filled with everything from testing old recipes to day-long grocery shopping trips (an inevitability of living an hour from the nearest supermarket). But the most instructive aspects of this period were not the technicalities of maintaining and revising an 82-year-old cookbook, but rather, the feeling of Joy‘s legacy—its joie de vivre, if that isn’t too rich for your blood.

Often, after a day of recipe testing, when the last thing we wanted to do was cook dinner or eat leftover Shrimp Wiggle, Ethan would invite us up to his house. His sense of taste runs to the classic—boeuf Bourguignon, roasted pork loin, hearty polenta—as befits any great host. He did not challenge us with new and exciting (read: exhausting) dishes. He simply let the food speak and made sure our wine glasses were filled.

Ethan inherited his father’s habit of liberal pouring. Good times at Ethan’s mean “Garbage Can Punch” (don’t ask) or Deluxe Eggnog—a traditional raw-egg affair, made by the half-gallon. Especially convivial evenings end with rounds of the ruinous Nikolashka—a flavor-bomb of lemon slices dusted with sugar, coffee grounds and chocolate, washed down with a large sip of cognac. And why not?

The alchemy that occurs when good, unfussy food is paired with drink, and loved ones, is something that a recipe can never capture. All preciousness and whimsy aside, the real joy is in the doing. This is perhaps the most important thing we learned during our tenure in Tennessee: Joy‘s significance and charm is that it is an invitation. It is not a demand or a guilt trip or a textbook. It is a steady hand and a warm voice and a full glass of wine when you need it.

As the present stewards of Joy, we are in search of balance. To us, the cocktail is not some ideal creation meant to be clarified and shaken to perfection with just the right size of ice cube. We will not do the book the disservice of turning it into a catalogue of trends or a liturgical dictionary for mixologists. And neither will we create a mausoleum for antiquated tipples to rattle about the pages like old, dusty bones. Our strategy, then, would look something like a Venn diagram of old and new, lasting and ephemeral, and the small sliver created where the two sides meet…that is where we want to be. 

John Becker and his wife, Megan Scott, are the fourth-generation stewards of the Joy of Cooking. They test old recipes, develop new ones, manage all of the food photography as well as the Joy website and social media accounts. Megan is partial to a good Gin and Tonic or rosé. John takes his bourbon on the rocks.