"It was a wife's duty to be interested in whatever interested her husband, whether it was politics, books, or a particular dish for dinner."
— Eleanor Roosevelt
At first glance, our signed copies of Irma Rombauer's classic The Joy of Cooking 1943 Edition and Eleanor Roosevelt's This Is My Story appear to be completely unrelated. What relation does a cookbook have to a first lady, and what does a legendary world figure have to do with a St. Louis housewife?
Nothing at all, and yet —
Eleanor Roosevelt and Irma Rombauer were two of the most influential women in America in the 20th century. Eleanor Roosevelt was the niece of Theodore Roosevelt, the wife of FDR, and a force unto herself; Irma Rombauer published a little book called Joy of Cooking. Though they never met each other, their life spans overlapped and they experienced the same significant events and cultural changes; Rombauer died on October 14, 1962, and Eleanor Roosevelt passed away only weeks later, on November 7.
Neither woman was a great cook.* The Joy of Cooking is a purely democratic cookbook, replete with recipes easily mastered by any person who has to get dinner on the table. The story of its birth and subsequent editions is told by Anne Mendelson in Stand Facing the Stove. Rombauer paid $3,000 in 1931 to have The Joy of Cooking printed. Today it is one of the few perennial titles in the genre. I can say from experience that if you follow the instructions for the Brownies Cockaigne, the recipe will never let you down.
Eleanor Roosevelt had Mrs. Henrietta Nesbitt as housekeeper during the FDR administration — even if Mrs. Roosevelt had loved to cook, when would she have had the time? Read a few pages of Blanche Cook's biographies and you'll be exhausted by Eleanor's itinerary. In 1943, the year our signed copy of The Joy of Cooking was published, she hosted Mme. Chiang Kai-shek at the White House and then toured the South Pacific for five weeks to visit hospitals and meet the troops. And this was after surviving Alexander Woollcott's stay at the White House in 1942.
These two successful, atypical women were alike in many ways, and yet were worlds apart from each other. Irma Rombauer didn't set out to conquer American cuisine with her cookbook, but she was ambitious, and The Joy of Cooking has been a companion in our kitchens, as her biographer Anne Mendelson writes:
...from the Great Depression to the Ford Administration, a lawless mélange of blueprints for progress, nostalgic hankerings, gourmet cults, timesaving expedients, media-inspired fads, and unexpected rebellions.
Eleanor Roosevelt might have welcomed a few hours of quiet domesticity in front of a stove, but she had a country to help run. What kept her out of the kitchen? The ideas of progress and equality. She might have been her husband's legs, but she had a mind of her own. During FDR's administration, she hosted 348 press conferences. These were open to women journalists only. Eleanor Roosevelt believed that women should be encouraged to "think in a broader spectrum, one that was outside of their overwhelming domestic lifestyle."
Irma Rombauer would have agreed.
Do you enjoy good food writing? Here are three of the most delicious:
÷ ÷ ÷
* Eleanor Roosevelt's Pink Clouds on Angel Food Cake
1 cup cake flour (you cannot substitute) Sift before measuring.
1 1/4 cups egg whites (10 or 12 eggs)
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon almond flavoring
1/4 teaspoon salt
Angel Food Cake
Sift flour at least 2 times and set aside.
Beat egg whites with beater until foamy.
Add cream of tartar and 1 cup of sugar gradually to the egg whites (you are not using the flour yet). Continue beating until egg whites stand up in peaks.
Add almond flavoring. Sift remaining 1/2 cup of sugar with salt and add flour and very gradually fold into egg whites
Bake in tube pan in 375 degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes.
Whipped Cream and Strawberries (Pink Clouds)
1 pint strawberries
1/2 pint heavy cream, whipped
1/2 cup sugar
Crush berries with sugar. Let stand 30 minutes.
Carefully fold berries into whipped cream.
Spoon on top of Angel Food cake.