Reading and Eating: Taking Inspiration from “Joy of Cooking” | Elaine Griffin | 5 Min Read

January 20, 2023

One of our earliest forms of narrative, long predating epics and novels? 

The cookbook. I love cookbooks for the stories they tell about who and what we are. Not only do chefs share the stories behind the recipes they have created. Cookbooks themselves also tell us about changing tastes, family traditions, and our wider cultural history.  

Cue “Joy of Cooking,” which has been with us since 1931 and has gone through nine editions, the most recent of which was just issued this past November. It’s been in the family all that time:  the recent edition is co-edited by John Becker, the great-grandson of Irma S. Rombauer, who self-published the original during the height of the Great Depression. Reflecting how our country has changed, the new edition includes numerous global dishes, as well as the old standards; to invoke an old metaphor for America, “Joy” is a melting pot.  

It’s also a book that’s offered cooking lessons to generations of young people.  

In a recent piece on “Joy,” Chicago Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens recounts how her 14-year-old daughter received the updated “Joy” this Christmas from her grandmother. Ms. Stevens’ daughter has always found the kitchen to be a “playground and sanctuary.” When her daughter was a toddler, “she poured and stirred and pounded flour into plumes”; her family called it “making mess-ipes.” Now “she makes crème brûlée and sourdough bread from scratch and fresh pasta dough.” 

Mr. Becker writes in the introduction to the new edition that he “grew up with ‘Joy’.” In his home, it was “a talismanic presence stained with the drippy evidence of a life of cooking.” He  shares that he “learned to flip an omelet at his mother’s knee” and that he became “a natural saucier by the age of five.”  

It makes sense that children would be naturals in the kitchen. 

Children populate magical kingdoms through the stories they imagine; in the 2019 introduction  to “Joy,” we learn that “the directions are given in a storylike format in that they proceed from beginning to end.” Recipes represent an empowering form of storytelling in which the recipe itself—the golden key, the hidden scroll, the secret password—unlocks magic powers, allowing us to create whole worlds, often involving new and undiscovered lands. 

Among the intrepid kitchen explorers I’ve come to know through my many years at University School is Zach Nelson, who attended the middle school before graduating from the upper school in 2016. I asked Zach, who works now as a line cook at New York City’s prestigious Gramercy Tavern, what turned him on to cooking. His reply took him back to his middle school years.

“I remember the first time I put brown sugar on my almost perfectly rendered bacon and let it mix and caramelize with the hot fat, yielding a supremely crispy, perfectly sweet, and salty strip,” Zach wrote, making me instantly hungry. “I was in middle school and loved playing around in my kitchen. While I could go on about the different projects I tried, the bacon stands out. It set off a realization, an understanding that I could create something I had never tried before or seen my mom make. I felt powerful knowing that I had the ability to create, to bring an idea to life, and in this case, to shove that idea in my mouth and savor it completely.” 

In short, cooking allowed Zach—as it potentially allows all of our children—to use imagination and creativity to tell a new kind of story that can then be shared with the world. Bringing your children into the kitchen will make them collaborative stakeholders, shaping a story that connects them to what they eat and the family with whom they eat it. Even if you don’t initially want your children to use the stove, they can do invaluable prep work—including menu planning, trips to the grocery store, and meal preparation basics involving washing produce and measuring ingredients—that will strengthen their connection to the food you eat and the family traditions influencing what you eat and why. 

Cooking together not only connects us to our families. It can also strengthen our feelings of connection to the world. Children often hesitate to eat new foods, instead loading their plates with pasta, bread, and rice. As is true when we offer them world stories in English class at University School, cooking global dishes challenges them to take risks and broaden their minds by learning to read the map of the world in a new way. 

What is orange blossom water? Miso? Pomegranate molasses? Children won’t truly know what they like until they try a wide array of dishes. I remember traveling in Mexico and being asked “Te gustan escamoles?” (do you like ant larvae). Having never tried the dish, I honestly didn’t know. I gave it a shot and I loved it (I guess I like anything sautéed in garlic and olive oil). 

“Kids should learn how to cook so that they can explore their own ideas through a new lens,” Zach said to me. “That exploration is what is exciting and kept me coming back for more. Once  you learn how to hold a knife and assume that everything is hot, the kitchen is not a dangerous place, and once that danger is gone, it can become whatever one wants it to be.” 

I hope you create some new family stories while reliving some old ones by inviting your children into the kitchen. You will provide them with a low-stakes, high-yield way of exercising their creativity while giving them the chance to develop a practical, life-long skill. It will nourish them. And as they grow confident in the kitchen, it will provide yet another way in which the joy of cooking feeds you as well as your family. 

Happy Cooking! 

PS – Since cooking is all about sharing, here are two of my favorite recipes: A fun and fancy variation on a hearty winter classic, and a tangy summertime trip abroad with one of my favorite international chefs: 

Zingerman’s Mac and Cheese Recipe: I attended the University of Michigan (Go Blue!), the home of Zingerman’s, a deli regarded (rightly!) as one of the finest in the United States. This dish defines comfort food and is truly kid friendly. Yotam Ottolenghi’s Soba Noodles with Eggplant and Mango from “Plenty”: Appealing to more adventurous palates, Mr. Ottolenghi has a great way of mixing different tastes from around the world to create unique dishes.

Elaine Griffin

Elaine Griffin is the Middle School Head at University School of Milwaukee, where she had previously served as an Upper School literature teacher and administrator for more than 20 years. Her essays have previously appeared in Education Next, The Once and Future Classroom, Chinese Language Matters, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Her professional interests include parent education, curricular reform, and social-emotional learning.

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