A Vintage Cookbookery Mystery – The Curious Case of Irma Rombauer and the Missing Squirrel

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Music – “Grey Squirrel” from Grey Squirrel by The Learning Station. Released: 2012

7 Editions of "Joy of Cooking" in my collection

7 Editions of “Joy of Cooking” in my collection

In 1931, Irma S. Rombauer published the first edition of “The Joy of Cooking”, “A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with an Occasional Culinary Chat” 3,000 copies were printed: 3,000 copies were sold.

In 1936, the first revision was published and the book was expanded from its original 396 pages and up until 1942, additional printings were made; it was that popular. Subsequently, other editions and printings of other editions followed through the decades. To say “Joy of Cooking” has been enduring in the hearts of American cooks is an understatement. In 2006, the 75th Anniversary edition was published and it is unlikely to be the last successor in the history of Rombauer’s cookbook. According to reliable sources, approximately 18,000,000 copies of “Joy of Cooking” have been sold, perhaps more.

In my current cookbook collection, I have 7 editions of “Joy of Cooking”: 1946 (reprint of the 1943 edition), 1963 (reprint of 1962 with corrections), 1964 (more corrections), 1971, 1975 (fifth revision), 1997 (sixth revision), and 2006, the 75th Anniversary edition. Despite the obvious gaps in my collection of various editions and reprints, there is something curious that I noticed.

squirrel sign

The first copy of “Joy of Cooking” I received in 1972, as a wedding gift, and it was a 1971 reprint of the 1964 edition. Growing up in southern Ontario, I was more accustomed to the more “genteel” recipes I had grown up with. In examining the book’s index, I was appalled to see a recipe for squirrel (to be served with walnut catsup and polenta). Even more distressing was to see the illustration (thankfully, it was not a photograph), of the little critter being divested of his fur by means of a clumsy person in boots, stomping on the creature’s tail, while grasping the other end and tearing the fur and skin in both directions.

How could you eat this cute little furry thing?

How could you eat this cute little furry thing?

Ms. Rombauer notes that “There are, proverbially, many ways to skin a squirrel…” but whatever way is used, it looks horrid and shocking. Although the rest of the chapter on “game” features recipes for opossum, bear, raccoon, woodchuck, beaver and more, it was the shock of realizing that there were people, who really ate squirrels!

Growing up in Southern Ontario, literally crammed with maple, pine, spruce and oak trees and more, the little gray and brown squirrels were abundant. I used to put unshelled peanuts out for them in my backyard. Being smart and savvy, they would grab them, dash here and there and store them in numerous secretive places for retrieval during the harsh winters. Clever, they were. Come winter, when the snow was piled high, they were able to locate their little stashes and retrieve them. So, I guess, the recipe for squirrel in my first copy of “Joy of Cooking” just stuck with me, in an unpleasant fashion.

Over the years, in expanding my cookbook collection, I gathered up the other editions I have. Now, here is where the mystery lies: squirrel is included in 1946 (reprint of the 1943 edition), 1963 (reprint of 1962 with corrections), 1964 (more corrections), 1971, 1975 (fifth revision) and 2006, the 75th Anniversary Edition. But, dear readers, it is not included in the 1997 edition, now titled “The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking”.

1997 Edition of "Joy of Cooking".  Where has the squirrel gone?

1997 Edition of “Joy of Cooking”. Where has the squirrel gone?

Over the years, Irma added the input of her daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker, her grandson. Later, other family members participated. In the 1997 edition, in the chapter on “Game”, the little squirrel is conspicuous by his absence. Wild birds, rabbit, venison, bison, even ostrich and emu are included. But, the little squirrel has disappeared from the pages. Where did he go? Was there a cataclysmic event in the US in 1997, say a shortage of peanuts, which would explain its absence? Were there too many ending up as road kill? (probably irrelevant, as there are several books on roadkill out there). Were people just sick to death of eating squirrel? Where, pray tell, did the squirrels go in 1997?

As Alice said in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, it becomes curiouser and curiouser. Sometime between 1997 and 2006, the little squirrel reappears. He is included in the 75th Anniversary edition, published in 2006. A 1998 publication was a facsimile of the original 1931 edition, so squirrel would have been mentioned in that edition. But, where or where was the little fellow between the 1997 and 2006 editions?

75th Anniversary Edition of "Joy of Cooking" (he's B-A-C-K!)

75th Anniversary Edition of “Joy of Cooking” (he’s B-A-C-K!)

Irma Rombauer died in 1962 so we can’t ask her. Marion passed away in 1976. Perhaps Marion and Nathan made an executive decision to eliminate the squirrel, and then later reconsidered and brought him back.

"Run, Hilda, run!  I just heard we're back on the menu in the latest edition of "Joy of Cooking!"

“Run, Hilda, run! I just heard we’re back on the menu in the latest edition of “Joy of Cooking!”

Perhaps there was a whole generation of cooks, clamoring for the squirrel recipe and they simply bowed to the masses.
"Look out comrades.....we're back in the book!"

“Look out comrades…..we’re back in the book!”

Well, at least the little squirrels were given a temporary reprieve for a number of years. The mystery of Irma Rombauer and the missing squirrel may never be solved.

"No, Harold....when I said SQUIRREL BBQ, I was referring to the 2006 edition of "Joy of Cooking"!  RUN!!

“No, Harold….when I said SQUIRREL BBQ, I was referring to the 2006 edition of “Joy of Cooking”! RUN!!

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About vintagecookbookery

Cookbook lover and collector with a burgeoning collection of cookbooks. Reading and researching food trends, history of cooking techniques and technological advances in cooking, what we eat and why and cookbooks as reflectors of cultures is a fascination for me. As of November 7th, 2013, I hold the current Guinness World Record title for the largest collection of cookbooks: 2,970 at the official count on July 14th, 2013 (applaud now, thank you very much!) The current (unofficial) number is now 6,124. What next? More shelves!
This entry was posted in Cookbooks, Cooking, Cooking and Social History, Eating, Vintage Cookbooks and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Vintage Cookbookery Mystery – The Curious Case of Irma Rombauer and the Missing Squirrel

  1. Great post! I think as you suggest that Irma’s descendants probably cringed at the squirrel recipe (or a 1990s focus group did), but maybe the 2006 editors decided it added color, or would appeal to the locavores. I can’t look at the animal-skinning illustrations or recipes in this book without getting queasy, but I’m not saying it should be cut…

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