50 Women Game Changers in Food: Irma Rombauer (Week 9)

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In 2011, Gourmet released their list of the 50 Women Game Changers in Food. I stumbled on this entirely by accident. One week a couple of months ago, I was meal planning, and didn’t have access to my Ina Garten cookbooks. So, I googled the recipe I was looking for and found it on a blog that was making its way through the list (she’s number 39… I’m a little disgruntled that Rachael Ray is higher up than she is). I was inspired to do the same. I need to challenge myself more in the kitchen, and I thought this would be an excellent way to do so.  As I’ve been planning for this, I’ve been flipping through cookbooks, checking out websites and buying new equipment, and I’m excited. I’m also really looking forward to learning more about these game changing women, and introducing myself to recipes I’ve never cooked before.

(And since this entire year-long project will be all recipes I’ve never made before, I can’t promise that everything will turn out the way I want it to. But whether a dish is a winner or an epic fail, I’m going to be completely honest about it.)

Number nine brings us to Irma Rombauer.

Irma Rombauer (October 30, 1877 – October 14, 1962) was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to two German immigrants, Max von Starkloff & Emma Kuhlmann von Starkloff. In 1899, she met & married Edgar Rombauer. They had three children: Roland (who died as an infant), Marion & Edgar Jr. Edgar’s father was a judge, and he also became involved in politics. He eventually became Speaker of the House for the St. Louis House of Delegates. Irma delighted in playing the hostess. She organized everything from luncheons for the women’s organizations she was involved in, to formal dinner parties for her husband and his associates. I love this quote from her biographer, about her personality: “No one could be long in her diminutive presence without sensing an air of concentrated intelligence, strength, self-possession, charm, and dignity that seemed to sweep all before it—except that she knew how to soften it with disarming feminine self-deprecation and sheer fun.”

Edgar Rombauer frequently struggled with depression, and on February 3, 1930, he committed suicide. He left Irma not only emotionally shattered, but also under a financial hardship. She had no job, and only $6,000 in savings. Her children were grown and living their own lives, and she needed something to keep her busy. Which is when she shocked her friends and family, and decided to author a cookbook.

As a cook, she was competent, but her real talent was entertaining. She considered the social aspect of dining together much more important than the food itself. She spent a year collecting recipes, and in 1931, she published them in The Joy of Cooking. She had 3,000 copies printed & sold locally. She revised it, with the help of her late husband’s former secretary, and released another edition in 1936. And again in 1943. And again in 1946. In 1955, Irma suffered a series of strokes, so her daughter, Marion, took over. Marion had helped her mother with some of the previous editions, but the edition that was released in 1963 was her work, and is the edition that “would stand as one of the signal documents of the 1950s-1960s gourmet revolution, along with The James Beard Cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, The New York Times Cookbook, and Michael Field’s Cooking School.” (source) At this point, the Joy of Cooking was more than just a collection of recipes, it became the nation’s cooking bible. It was revised again in 1972. In 1974, Marion’s husband (and partner) passed away, and her son Ethan & his wife began to take part in what had become a wonderful family legacy. Another copy was released in 1975, the last one managed by Marion, and she passed away in 1976. The next copy was released in 1997, under the direction of her son, Ethan. This one is different from the previous editions. Ethan took away some of the first person comments, added more ethnic recipes, added recipes that used modern conveniences, like food processors & microwaves. That year, Ethan remarried a woman named Susan Cope, and they began working on the 75th anniversary edition, which was released in 2006.

My mom wasn’t much of a cook. My dad always teased that she couldn’t boil water for spaghetti, so I don’t remember ever seeing this book in my home as a child, but apparently everyone else in the world had a copy. My husband’s family did. When I started reading through it to find a recipe to make, Graham said that the book brought back a lot of memories for him. However, he couldn’t remember any specific recipe his mom had made from it, so I was on my own.

(I bought a used copy of the 1997 edition on Amazon for $4. And it was absolutely worth every penny.)

My copy of this book is now covered in post-it notes. I found a ridiculous number of things I wanted to make, but somehow I ended up making Vietnamese Pho. I wasn’t sure if making my first ever batch of pho from the Joy of Cooking was the best idea, but I figured ‘what the hell?’
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After deciding to make the pho, and having Graham raise his eyebrows at that decision, I did look at other pho recipes to compare. The ingredients in this were very similar to the ingredients I found in more… ethnic… sources, so I went with it. I made this on Superbowl Sunday, as part of my epic evening in. Graham was going to a Superbowl party, so I had a BIG evening planned: a pitcher of my favorite sangria, a 3 hour bath with one of my Lush bath bombs, and a delicious bowl of soup.2015-02-01 06.16.51

Making pho was a lot easier than I thought it would be. There is a great international grocery store fairly close to my apartment, and I was able to find everything I needed (note: they do sale oxtail at Fresh Market, but it costs a heck of a lot more). The only part that worried me was the beef. The recipe calls for you to thinly slice it, arrange it in the bowl, and add the hot broth to it. That worried me (although I’m not sure why…), but I asked a friend of mine who, 1) is a chef, and 2)who makes an amazing bowl of pho, and he said that’s how he does it. I cut the meat as thinly as I possibly could and watched the broth do it’s thing. It was very cool to watch. The meat was cooked through within seconds. I feel slightly bad that Graham didn’t get to have any of this the night I made it, because it was so good. It was still good the next day, but nothing like the first night.2015-02-01 06.17.01
So, pho. Even though this recipe wasn’t in the original copy of this book, I’m glad this is the one I went with. I had never made pho before, and honestly was quite intimidated by it. But the whole point of this little project is to get me out of my cooking comfort zone, and to get me trying things I have never made before. And this may have been the first time, but it won’t be the last. I absolutely can not wait to make this again!
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Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup (Pho Bo)
(Recipe slightly adapted from the Joy of Cooking; 1997 Edition, p.117-118)

For the broth:

  • 4″ piece of ginger, slice in half lengthwise
  • 1 large onion, cut in half
  • 3 lbs. of ox tail
  • 1-3″ cinnamon stick
  • 6 star anise
  • 1 T. salt
  • 1 t. soy sauce
  • 2 T. fish sauce
  • Cheesecloth

To serve the soup:

  • 12 oz. dried flat rice stick noodles (banh pho)
  • 12 oz. of round steak, sliced as thinly as possible (this is easier if the steak is partially frozen)
  • 2 Serrano peppers, thinly sliced
  • 24 fresh basil leaves
  • 1/4 cup chopped scallions
  • 2 cups of bean sprouts
  • 3 T. of chopped cilantro
  • Lime wedges


  1. Raise an oven rack to the highest position in your oven, turn the broiler to high, brush a little bit of vegetable oil over the cut side of the vegetables and place under the broiler until they have started to char. Halfway through, turn over, and char the other side.
  2. Add the onions, ginger & ox tail to a large pot with 3.5 quarts of water. Bring the water to a boil and skim off the impurities as they rise to the top. Cut off a small piece of the cheesecloth and make a pouch for the star anise and the cinnamon. Add that to the pot, along with the salt, soy sauce & fish sauce. Reduce the heat and simmer for 3 hours. Skim the scum off of the top as it collects.
  3. Once the broth is finished, cook the noodles according to package directions.
  4. Divide the cooked noodles, Serrano peppers, basil & scallions among the individual bowls. Arrange the thinly sliced beef on top.
  5. Bring the broth back up to a boil over high heat. When the broth is boiling, ladle the broth into the bowls and watch it cook the meat.
  6. Garnish with sprouts, cilantro, & lime wedges.

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