When you follow a recipe and it doesn't work, how do you know when it's your fault, and when it's the recipe's fault? Why do some writers' recipes just work — while others' are hit-or-miss? And is there a better way to write recipes?
This week Dan talks with Chandra Ram, who knows the pitfalls of recipe writing better than almost anyone. In her capacity as a judge for the prestigious IACP Awards, Chandra puts recipes from popular cookbooks to the test. On the flip side, she's written lots of recipes for her own cookbooks, so she understands how easy it is to stumble, even when pursuing recipe perfection.
Then Dan talks with John Becker and Megan Scott, who revised and developed 2,400 recipes for the latest edition of Joy Of Cooking. Joy is one of the most popular cookbooks in history, but it's also one of the only cookbooks to use the "action method" of recipe writing.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Party Hop" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Clean" by James Thomas Bates
- "Summer Getaway" by Stephen Clinton Sullivan
- "Soul Good" by Lance Conrad
- "Small Talk" by Hayley Briasco
- "Playful Rhodes" by Stephen Clinton Sullivan
Photos courtesy of Joy of Cooking, Geoffrey Smith, and Pableaux Johnson.
Julia Turshen: Recipes don’t just appear, like well-written, well-tested recipes take so much work.
Dan Pashman: This is best selling cookbook author Julia Turshen. She’s also written recipes for The New York Times and Bon Appetit, among others. She says a great recipe should feel effortless.
Julia Turshen: So I studied poetry in college and to me, a really well-written recipe is a little bit like a really good poem, even if that sounds cheesy. But it’s like, it seems simpler but so much work went into it and so much taking out and editing and it has to be really descriptive. And you know, I think sometimes the simplest things take enormous amounts of work.
Dan Pashman: In a good recipe, you need to anticipate and answer every possible question a person could have, all in just a few paragraphs. You need really clear indicators, clues about when to move on to the next step, or when you know it’s done. Claire Saffitz, the Bon Appetit test cook and host of Gourmet Makes on YouTube, she says when she writes a recipe, she thinks a lot about that part.
Claire Saffitz: So I like to always give three or four visual indicators and even other kinds of indicators, like what is it? Is it going to smell like something? Is it going to feel like something? So with the cake, I often say, "Golden brown around the edges, golden on the top, springs back in the center when you touch it and a cake tester comes out clean." So it might feel excessive but like all of those things are important and are telling you something.
Dan Pashman: Is there a specific indicator in a recipe that you have seen at some point in your career? Maybe someone else wrote it and you were like, "That's really good. I wish I wrote that."
Claire Saffitz: Oh, one of my favorite indicators is—just cause I love the words, "A slowly dissolving ribbon." So when you mix eggs and sugar in a mixer and you whip them, it gets really, really light and thick. And the best indicator is when you lift up the whisk and the mixture falls back into the bowl onto itself in a quote, "slowly dissolving ribbon".
Dan Pashman: I do like that.
Claire Saffitz: That's a good one.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. That could be like the title of your memoir.
Claire Saffitz: A slowly dissolving ribbon?
Dan Pashman: Yes!
Claire Saffitz: See, that's a good one. I've come up with so many memoir titles that have been taken. That's a good way one.
Dan Pashman: There you go.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Now, before we get to the show, I know we’re all living in some crazy stressful times, right now. I want to say first off, I hope that you and your family and your community are doing okay. On my end we’re hanging in. As it is, I know that whenever I work from home I always eat more, because I'm just like ambling through the kitchen all day long. And so on my first day of working from home in the midst of the Coronavirus panic, I'm pretty sure I gained about 27 pounds.
Dan Pashman: I want you to know, we're gonna keep making episodes. We’re able to do it remotely and I hope that in some small way our show provides you with some comfort and an entertaining distraction. And I want to tell you that next week we got a special episode called, "Eating While Quarantined". Yes, we're gonna have stories, cooking tips, special guests. I think it’s gonna be great. So, we’re all gonna get through this. Now, let’s get into it...
Dan Pashman: Today on the show we’re asking a simple question: How do you write a great recipe? And what are some of the biggest mistakes recipe writers make? Later in the show, we hear the story of one of the best selling cookbooks of all time, which uses a totally different recipe style from just about everyone else. But let’s begin with the classic types of recipes most of us know. There are so many of them out there. Right? I mean, if you’ve ever searched online, even for something obscure, let alone, god forbid, chocolate chip cookies, you know what I’m talking about. Every week here at Sporkful HQ, we get piles of cookbooks filled with recipes. But they aren’t all created equal.
Chandra Ram: A lot of cookbooks seem really wonderful when you're flipping through and you're looking at the photos and reading all of these wonderful stories but when you get down to cooking the recipes, that's when you can really separate a few out from the herd.
Dan Pashman: This is Chandra Ram. She’s a cookbook author, her most recent book is an instant pot Indian cookbook. She’s also the editor of Plate magazine and every year, she judges cookbooks for the prestigious IACP Awards. That's the International Association of Culinary Professionals. First, she reads through dozens of cookbooks to select the semi-finalists. Then she and the other judges test a few representative recipes from each of those semi-finalists.
Chandra Ram: Today I'm working on one of the last recipes, which is for a vinaigrette. There have been soups, salads, some braises. You know, I'm based in Chicago. So I had a really good experience getting my grill going in the snow the other day, which is something really I think only people on the recipe testing deadline wind up doing.
Dan Pashman: When she’s testing recipes for the IACP Awards, Chandra follows each one as precisely as possible.
Chandra Ram: I try to not multitask, which I think is the killer of attention in detail. So I pull all my ingredients out and make sure I've got them in front of me, so I don't forget to say add the baking powder to a cake recipe or add in a certain spice to a stew or a soup.
Dan Pashman: Chandra has a few different criteria that she uses to judge each recipe and it goes beyond whether it works. For her it’s also about the style. Like Julia Turshen said at the beginning, "A good recipe is like a poem. And so, it should have a voice."
Chandra Ram: I, personally, I really hate what I call like, "recipe robot speak". And that's those recipes that say like, "In a bowl add flour,” or something. And I'm like, seriously? Like, who talks like that?
Dan Pashman: So how should I tell people to put the flour in the bowl, that would be a way that you would find more compelling?
Chandra Ram: Like you just did, put the flour in a bowl.
Dan Pashman: Oh, all right. So you like the conversational. Like, hey, we're sitting here together. Put some flour in a bowl, you dummy.
Chandra Ram: I mean, maybe don't insult them but...
Dan Pashman: Chandra says a recipe writer should also be thinking of who their audience is.
Chandra Ram: I always think like I think about my husband, who is in software, is not a cook, but he does like to cook. But when he cooks, he follows every single point of every single recipe instruction. Whereas, if I'm not in recipe testing mode, I might just be like, "Oh okay. I think I kind of get it," and then I'll just cook myself.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Chandra Ram: Or you know, I think about my sister-in-law, Lindsay, who is a great cook, and will do a certain amount of improv but she wants to know what the cookbook writer had to say, like what their intention was. And you just need to think like, "OK, this is somebody cooking at home."
Dan Pashman: That’s why Chandra likes recipes that have lots of specifics.
Chandra Ram: If you say a teaspoon of salt? Does that mean table salt? Do you mean kosher salt?
Dan Pashman: That distinction matters because kosher salt has a coarser grain, chunkier chunks. So when you fill a teaspoon with it, there’s more space between the pieces, more air within the teaspoon. So it’s less actual salt versus a very fine-grained table salt. Plus, kosher salt is less salty, ounce for ounce. So using the wrong kind of salt can really screw things up.
Chandra Ram: People who are relying on that measurement, they need some help here. They need further information because I got to tell you, once you've put too much salt in something, it is almost impossible to save it.
Dan Pashman: What are some of your other recipe pet peeves?
Chandra Ram: If something is chopped and it's going to be in like a salad or a relish or something, tell me exactly how to chop it. It helps to be able to look at the photos, but there aren't always photos with the recipes and sometimes recipe instructions don't match a photo.
Dan Pashman: And you don't want a salad where like all the pieces are different sizes, so you don't get like proper ratios in each bite.
Chandra Ram: Right. Or you wind up with pieces that are too big to eat in a salad. So now I've got to chop my salad while I'm eating it.
Dan Pashman: Quick sidebar, what are your thoughts on the Caesar salad served with whole leaves of romaine lettuce?
Chandra Ram: Drives me up a wall.
[Dan Pashman laughing]
Chandra Ram: I really...I mean, I think it looks beautiful. I think it's wonderful for the Instagram. I think it's all of that but I really hate extra large pieces of lettuce. I...
Dan Pashman: Yes.
Chandra Ram: In recipes, particularly.
Dan Pashman: You should not need a knife to eat a salad.
Chandra Ram: But it's a thing when people are chopping—when they're cutting lettuce and they're cutting across the leaf, they forget that the wider you go towards the end of the leaf, that's too long a piece for someone to eat.
Dan Pashman: Yes.
Chandra Ram: So now I've got lettuce covered with dressing and a piece of it just slopped on my chin.
Dan Pashman: Yes. And also because it tends to be like a softer, more sort of wilted, when you get to the end of the leaf, that bit flaps around more on the end of the fork. So it could be spraying dressing all over the place.
Chandra Ram: I feel like you should be running for president, specifically on this topic.
Dan Pashman: This is my platform.
Dan Pashman: So as Chandra said, when she judges a cookbook, she really has home cooks in mind. Which is why she finds that cookbooks written by restaurant chefs often have blind spots.
Chandra Ram: Those too often are written from the point of view of someone who has a full-time dishwasher and a full-time prep cook. And I noticed this when I was recipe-testing this time around for IACP that I was using more bowls and pans than I needed. But since I don't have a professional dishwasher working with me, that just meant I had more stuff that I got to clean at the end of the day. If the point of what we're doing is to create this food and create these recipes that bring happiness and feed people, trying to do it without creating the stress of a full sink of dishes would be great.
Dan Pashman: Another common recipe issue Chandra sees a lot? Getting the ratios wrong between the different components of the meal. Like, say you’re making a salad with dressing, all in one recipe. You don’t want the recipe to have you making a gallon of dressing for a salad that only serves four people. Right? Sure, you can stick it in the fridge but then it's taunting you every time you open the fridge. Right? Until you finish it, or more likely, throw it out.
Dan Pashman: So ratios, chopping dimensions, dirty dishes...There are so many different things to keep in mind when writing a recipe, or judging one. Even Chandra sometimes makes mistakes in developing her own recipes.
Chandra Ram: For my Indian book, for example, I had a friend testing a recipe for shrimp biryani. And I had made this recipe probably seven or eight times to get the timing right, exactly. I had specific instructions. You're gonna soak the rice for this long, then you're going to add everything together. And what I didn't realize was, because I was so deep in it, that other people were going to go to the grocery store and if they don't know a lot about rice, say, "You know what? And instead just white basmati, I can get brown basmati. Why don't I just go ahead and do that." And not realize that brown rice can take usually takes two to three times as long to cook as white rice. That was something when the person, my friend recipe testing said, "Oh, I just don't understand what I did wrong." And I think a lot of home cooks will assume that they did something wrong. And I just couldn't figure out why it took so long for her rice to cook. And I was like, "What brand? What was it?" And she said, " Oh, it's just brown basmati." And I was like, "Oh my God, we have to go through and indicate white, where we want white rice and brown where we want brown rice, on every single recipe."
Chandra Ram: That was recipe testing that was a save. But unfortunately, it came at the expense of my friend Liz's dinner because by the time the rice cooked, the shrimp were like four times overcooked. Then what? I mean, they were like chewy little erasers. It was sad.
Dan Pashman: I asked Chandra, when you cook something and it doesn’t come out well, how do you know when it’s your fault, and when it’s the recipe? She said, "Look, if you’re distracted so you do something out of order or forget a step, that’s on you. If you choose to make a substitution, that could throw things out of whack. But if you truly follow every step as well as you can and it comes out bad that’s on the recipe. Because if it’s a good recipe and you follow it, it will work. That’s the definition of a good recipe."
Dan Pashman: Who has the cookbooks that are consistently of the best recipes?
Chandra Ram: I would say Dorie Greenspan does just absolutely rock solid recipes, and I've experienced that with her baking and savory recipes.
Dan Pashman: What makes her recipes so good?
Chandra Ram: First of all, they're incredibly well tested. There's a lot of instruction to them. So that she has thought about what are all the questions someone will have here. She's eliminated unnecessary steps. And it's—I think that there's a certain amount of comfort that comes from knowing, "Oh, OK. It's a Dorie Greenspan recipe, so it will work."
Dan Pashman: And who out there, Chandra, is like—everyone's always buying these cookbooks, but you're like, I don't get it. These recipes, this person is not—their recipes are not up to snuff.
Chandra Ram: You know, I will say I haven't cooked one of her recipes in a very long time, but Martha Stewart used to burn me quite a bit. When I first got into cooking and I was working in catering and doing a lot of catering myself, I was cooking with her recipes and finding that they just didn't work, that there was an ingredient missing. So to everyone who had one of my disastrous meals in the 90s, in the early aughts, I apologize.
Dan Pashman: On their behalf, I accept your apology.
Chandra Ram: Thank you. You’re incredibly kind.
Dan Pashman: And you know what, Chandra, you just reminded me, I don't remember what happened a few months ago that I got it in my head that I was craving brownies. Super—I like brownies that are basically like fudge in the center.
Chandra Ram: Amen. Amen.
Dan Pashman: A little crusty on the outside, a little crispy on the edges and fudge in the center. And I just googled like fudgiest, most chocolatey brownies. And guess what? The top recipe that came up was?
Chandra Ram: What's that?
Dan Pashman: Martha Stewart. And I cooked those brownies and they were so freaking dry.
Chandra Ram: Really?
Dan Pashman: I followed that recipe to a T. I went out and bought cocoa powder and the whole nine yards. And my kids and I made them and they were not at all fudgy, as promised.
Chandra Ram: And then you said to yourself, "I'm going to do an entire episode about recipe testing, as my vindication."
Dan Pashman: Right.
Chandra Ram: But see, this is why it's so important, because you and your kids were doing a thing. And now your kids aren't going to have like the super awesome brownie memory. They're gonna have the, "Oh, remember that time dad made us made those dry brownies?"
Dan Pashman: Well, I told them it was Martha's fault.
Chandra Ram: Well, I look forward to her going after you before me, so...
Dan Pashman: That’s Chandra Ram, recipe tester, and editor of Plate Magazine, and cookbook author. Her latest is The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook. And you heard Chandra mention Dorie Grenspan, as someone who writes especially good recipes? Well, in two weeks, Dorie will be my guest on the show. I'm gonna go to her kitchen and watch her test a recipe just to see exactly how she does and find out why her recipes work so well. Do you see that? We mentioned her in this episode and then in two weeks, she's a guest on the show? This is like some free form jazz level podcasting here, people. I hope you appreciate it.
Dan Pashman: Anyway, coming up after the break, I talk with the husband and wife team who spent the last ten years updating one of the most hallowed cookbooks of all time. And this book uses a totally different approach to recipe writing than almost every other book out there. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. In case you missed last week’s show, I talked with the Irish comedian and writer Maeve Higgins. We ate at Yemen Cafe in Brooklyn, where a couple of strangers were so eager for us to try Yemeni tea that they just gave us theirs.
CLIP (MAEVE HIGGINS): Last year I went to Iraq and I went to Iran. In all of those places, everyone is obsessed with tea. And it really reminded me of Ireland because like nobody will let you go anywhere without a cup of tea. I think that's really funny that just happened here because sometimes I'm like, "Is it something about my face that people just wanna give me tea?"
Dan Pashman: Maeve also told me about how the actor Michael Fassbender helps her decide what to eat, and why she feels disconnected from Irish-Americans on St. Patrick’s Day in the US. That episode is up now, and Maeve is the best. This is one of Janie’s all-time favorite episodes. Check it out. Now, back to writing recipes...
Megan Scott: I owned Joy of Cooking. It was my first cookbook purchase ever.
Dan Pashman: This is Megan Scott.
Megan Scott: And I loved the book. And I was talking to a coworker of mine about it. And he said, "Didn't you know that the guy whose family wrote Joy of Cooking works at that coffee shop down the street?" And I thought he was messing with me. So I went down to that coffee shop after I got off work and asked the barista if he knew about it. And it happened to be John, who was working. And he was like, "Yeah, that's my family," kind of blushed.
Dan Pashman: The barista was John Becker. His great-grandmother, Irma Rombauer, wrote the original Joy of Cooking. Eventually Irma’s daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, took things over. And then her son Ethan Becker got in on the family business. And Ethan’s son is John. So back at the coffee shop, John’s working, Megan comes in, she realizes who he is.
Megan Scott: And I kind of freaked out. I was like, you know, that's really cool. And we just started talking and I eventually asked him out on a date.
Dan Pashman: A couple of years later, Megan and John got married.
Dan Pashman: And now you’re one of the people behind this iconic cookbook.
Megan Scott: I know. It’s very weird.
Dan Pashman: In 2019, John and Megan published the ninth edition of Joy of Cooking, following in the footsteps of John’s great-grandmother, Irma Rombauer. In the 1920s, Irma was living a comfortable life with her husband and daughter Marion in St. Louis. But when the Great Depression hit, Irma and her husband lost almost everything. On top of that, Irma’s husband had suffered from severe depression throughout his adult life. In 1930, he killed himself. Irma had been a housewife. But now, without a husband or an income, she had to do something to support her family. Here’s John Becker.
John Becker: And yeah, so with no professional training, she, just out of the blue, really like, "I think I'm gonna write a cookbook."
Dan Pashman: To people who knew Irma, this seemed like a strange choice. Because Irma didn’t know how to type and she wasn’t really known for her cooking.
Megan Scott: She had grown up in a household where they had a cook. And I believe that when she was married, they did have a cook for a while. The Depression kind of changed that for a lot of families of her class. So I don't think Irma had a ton of experience cooking. It wasn't that she hated cooking. It just wasn't it wasn't particularly her passion.
Dan Pashman: But Irma was passionate about throwing a good party.
Megan Scott: Irma really valued being—she was very social. And so she liked to throw parties or host coffee klatches, and that kind of thing. And so she cooked but it was more she was more interested in getting in and out of the kitchen quickly and getting back to the party. She wasn't really interested in cooking for the sake of cooking.
Dan Pashman: Irma took $3,000, which is nearly $50,000 in today’s money. That was about half of what she had to her name after her husband’s death. She took that and used it to self-publish her cookbook, which she called The Joy Of Cooking. It hit stores in 1931, just shy of 400 pages. And immediately, it stood out because it had personality.
Megan Scott: You know, when she was writing that first edition, she was, I think, writing it from a place of not loving to cook for the sake of cooking. And she knew, I think, that a lot of her readers were kind of in the same boat. And so she had this really interesting style of, you know, she would tell stories or historical asides. She would crack jokes. And some of the early editions there, like head notes that say things like, "I wish I had something interesting to say about all these recipes. Why don't you try it for yourself and see how you like it?" Which is kind of very charming.
Dan Pashman: So the woman who wrote Joy Of Cooking was not necessarily someone who found a lot of joy in cooking. It almost feels like she was trying to will the process to be fun, for herself and her readers. And the recipes themselves reflect that era, at a time when cooking was more done by feel, based on lessons passed down from mothers and grandmothers.
Megan Scott: They're a little skimpy on the instructions. So it might—they use terms like a warm oven or a hot oven. Or they'll tell you to make a roux without giving you any details about the quantities of ingredients you want to use or the process for making it. So you can really tell kind of the older recipes, the Irma recipes, by the ones that aren't quite as fleshed out as we would expect from a modern recipe.
Dan Pashman: And the selection of recipes looked different in that first edition. For instance, you’ll find fewer recipes for chicken, because it was more expensive than it is today, in relative terms. Joy of Cooking appealed to reluctant cooks and inspired them to be more enthusiastic. The book was successful enough that five years later, Irma cut a deal with a publisher to put out a second edition. This one is 200 pages longer.
Dan Pashman: And this 1936 edition goes down in cookbook history. Not just because it’s the one that really launched an empire with more than 20 million total copies in print today. But because it introduced a whole new style of recipe writing.
John Becker: She never called it this, but others have called it the Action Method, where the ingredients and the directives are actually mixed together as opposed to having an ingredient list up front.
Dan Pashman: So let’s say you’re making pancakes. If you picture a standard recipe, you see all the ingredients and measurements at the top. Right? One cup flour, half a cup sugar, etc. Then there are the instructions below that say things like, "Mix the flour and sugar.", but they don’t repeat the quantity. So you have to look back up to the top for measurements, which can be annoying. And the argument in favor of that approach is that you have all your ingredients together at the top so you can see what you need. Make your shopping list.
Dan Pashman: With Irma’s style, the Action Method, there are no ingredients at the top. It just starts right away with the instructions, with the ingredients and measurements included in the instructions. So for instance, that pancake recipe might start by saying, "Mix one cup of flour and a half a cup sugar." Each ingredient measurement is in bold on its own line, so you can still quickly scan the recipe to get your shopping list.
John Becker: We think it's a great recipe writing method, simply because like when you're in the kitchen and trying to multitask or trying to use just even just paying attention to like what color the onion should be, you don't necessarily have to go back and forth between the ingredient list and directions in order to kind of get your place.
Megan Scott: There were early kind of prototypes of that method that she was working with that weren't quite right, but eventually came to the format that has been in the books since ‘36. It's interesting that a woman in her 50s who has never been like a huge cook, would come up with this really novel and kind of really intelligent way of writing recipes that was totally new and different.
Dan Pashman: It certainly seems to make a lot of sense. Why do you think it hasn't been more widely adopted than it has been?
John Becker: You know, I wonder that often. I really do think that it's just a force of habit for recipe writers. I think it really does have to do with the convenience it offers to people making grocery lists. And also, I mean, this is just kind of a pet theory, but I think it also has to do with the fact that, you know, a lot of early recipe writing was for professionals. And it's much easier to cost out a recipe or scale it when all of the ingredients are in one spot. I guess, recipe writing industrial complex is geared towards this one this one format.
Dan Pashman: So let me be a fly on the wall. Pretend right now that you guys are cooking dinner. You're following someone else's recipe not written in the Action Method. I imagine pots and pans clanging, water being poured somewhere and things are not easy to follow. Like what are some of the common criticisms that the two of you are griping to each other about this other person's recipe?
John Becker: Honestly, probably the biggest complaint I have, it's just easy to leave things out. Like, you know, something in the ingredient list. Sometimes it doesn't even make it down into the directives and basically isn't used by the recipe. I've seen that so many times.
Megan Scott: Or one of my least favorite things is when the recipe says add the next six ingredients. You know, I realize it would be more space consuming to list every single ingredient you need to add. But I really think it's important because it's writing not to be understood, but so that there's no way you can be misunderstood, is kind of how I approach recipe writing. And when you say something like the next six ingredients, you're really you're really opening the door to a lot of a lot of problems there.
Dan Pashman: Totally. I don't know if I've ever seen that but that sounds very stupid to me.
Megan Scott: I don't think that is endorsed by—most people who write recipes really well for a living don't do that. But it's something I see on blogs all the time.
Dan Pashman: But some things I see in high end places, which is frankly similar, is it'll say, "Add the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and black pepper."
Megan Scott: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: And that is very irritating because that's six different ingredients, all the measurements for those different amounts are up at the top, in a separate area. And now I have to go not just back and forth once, but back and forth and back and forth six times, because I need to make sure that I don't accidentally miss one of those six things in that list. So I got to get—OK, so I need the sugar. How much sugar was it? Quarter teaspoon. OK. Done. What's the next thing on the list here? The next thing is clove, back to the top. How much clove? Okay, did we get the clove? By the time I get to number four in the list, I'm like, wait did I add the clove? I don't remember now. What? That was 20 minutes ago.
Megan Scott: Yeah. It's kind of enough to make you dizzy.
Dan Pashman: Yes. Yes. You know, and I'm getting very irritated just thinking about this...
Dan Pashman: Irma Rombauer stuck with the Action Method of recipe writing through the third and fourth editions. Around this time, her daughter Marion started taking over more of the work. She was listed as a co-author on the book. Irma died in 1962, just before the fifth edition came out. But Marion kept the book and the Action Method, going. In 1975, she published the sixth edition, which is the best-selling of them all. Bon Appetit says it’s “considered by many to be the best, the ‘truest’ to the book's vision, the essential Joy.”
John Becker: I mean, the 1975 is really what we consider that like a really high benchmark. And it's definitely the one that kind guided how we did this recent revision.
Dan Pashman: Why? What's special about that one?
John Becker: Irma really brought sort of a personal report to the book and she really tried to connect with her readers. But you know, even in 1951, it's kind of easy to recognize Joy as still just a collection of recipes that was not necessarily as a reference book. And that's where Marion came in. You know, I think she really had the ambition for it to be the American version of the Larousse Gastronomique. Just as a resource that home cooks could come to with whatever questions they may have about anything from basics on a cooking method to ingredients.
Megan Scott: Of those early editions, I think the 1975 edition to me feels the most timeless. Like it feels—There are people who still use that edition all the time now. And it doesn't feel—I mean, there are some parts of it where you can tell it's from the 70s, but it doesn't feel super dated. And I think that really helps people feel—their mom used and they're still using it. There's kind of a connection there.
Dan Pashman: John’s dad Ethan got involved for the 1997 and 2006 revisions. After that, John and Megan took over, and began rewriting, testing, and adding recipes for the latest edition. They wanted their version to be a reference book for American cooks, just like Marion’s 1975 version. And because the canon of American cooking is evolving and expanding, they added dishes like beef rendang and chana masala, among many others. They also included more vegetarian and vegan recipes. And ingredients that are now easier to find, miso and gochujang. It took Megan and John nearly ten years, but they finally published the latest Joy of Cooking last fall.
Dan Pashman: And how many recipes did you add?
John Becker: Over six hundred. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And you went also went back and tested every single one that was in there from the previous edition, is that right?
John Becker: Yeah. And you know, when we were doing that testing, we would research the recipe, like find out which edition it came from. Like when it was added and if there were any changes made over the years. So we kind of had the—we called them recipe genealogies. It was kind of our way of getting to know the book.
Dan Pashman: But the number of recipes that you guys tested, either retesting an old one or developing a new one, was about twenty four hundred?
John Becker: Yeah. It was around that.
Dan Pashman: So that's 240 recipes per year over 10 years?
John Becker: God, it sounds like nothing.
Dan Pashman: Well, I mean, there's 365 days in a year. I mean, if you're working five days a week, you pretty much did a recipe every weekday for 10 years.
Megan Scott: Yeah.
John Becker: Wow. Makes me feel...
Megan Scott: It makes me tired.
John Becker: Tired.
Dan Pashman: I'm curious to hear about like changes in the way that a specific recipe was written over the years.
John Becker: I remember tracing back pizza recipes and the behind the book. And I think that the first thing that we could be considered a pizza that was in the book was in 1943 and it was called Vegetable Shortcake. I thought that was really weird.
Dan Pashman: What about the recipe for chocolate chip cookies?
Megan Scott: Oh, yeah.
Dan Pashman: How has that one changed over the years?
Megan Scott: Well, it was in the book before the 40s. But in 1943, Irma wrote something like, "Oh, a special type of chocolate has been invented that makes making these cookies so much easier." And she was talking about chocolate chips because before that time, chocolate chips were not a thing. So you would take chocolate and chop it up and add it to your batter. And then they —You know, chocolate chips were invented, making it much easier to make chocolate chip cookies.
Dan Pashman: Right and she's like, "Extra! Extra! Check out the latest in kitchen technology!"
Megan Scott: Yeah. It's pretty interesting to think about that.
Dan Pashman: And so then in your lead into the chocolate chip cookie recipe, you added like more about like the history of chocolate chip cookies. You write, "Chocolate chip cookies were created in the 1930s by Ruth Wakefield of the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts." Does it tell us something about the way that we like our recipes today, that you chose to add that in?
Megan Scott: People want more of a story for recipes. So yeah, we definitely wanted to tell more stories in the headnotes and in just the text of the book because it does have such a long and storied history.
Dan Pashman: I like to imagine what Irma might have done to celebrate the release of the first Joy of Cooking in 1931. My guess is she had a bunch of friends over for a casual soiree, tossed back a few cocktails, told some jokes. John and Megan, when they finished their version?
John Becker: Right after we turned in the manuscript. We were like, "OK, let's take some notes, on like what we've failed to cover." And so then, you know, we'll be ready for the one hundredth anniversary edition.
Dan Pashman: Well, you got 11 years left for that one.
Megan Scott and John Becker: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: That’s Megan Scott and John Becker, keepers of The Joy of Cooking flame or pilot light, and co-authors of the latest edition.
Dan Pashman: Remember that in two weeks I’ll talk with cookbook author and cookie maven Dorie Greenspan. Next week we’ll have that special show on eating while quarantined. In the meantime, make sure to subscribe to our newsletter. I'll send you one email every week. Won't bug you too often, but guess what's in this email? I'm gonna tell you what everyone at The Sporkful is eating and reading. So you're gonna get recipes. You're gonna get inspiration for what to eat and you're gonna get cool links, interesting stuff that you're going to be glad you got. Plus, you get entered to win giveaways. So sign up now at sporkful.com/newsletter. Thanks.