Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Joy of "Cooking"

Easy, tasty and mostly made-from-scratch adolescent, half-baked mac 'n cheese

alternate blog title: Time for the dead Rombauers to roll over in their graves.

Ed Note: Would upload a picture of Joy personified here, but alas -- legal jumbo mumbo on part of Bellisino Foods, so check out their Web site at for some laughs and then some tears...

I never knew there was Joy behind Joy of Cooking in my decade of owning this now well-dog-earred book (yes, the '97 edition that raised much stink with "original Joy" loyalists); and for a name whose biggest scandal for its last 75+ years of existence was having an edition being ghostwritten by expert chefs (but was still nonetheless very accessible and straightforward), I thought it'd be immune Gustav-style name selling and licensing to mass-market products.

Oh how wrong was I, for now we have another personified, stereotyped, consumer-friendly American image to join the ranks of Betty Crocker, Brawny Man, Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth (though I found it hilarious when the last few got parodied on SNL and wound up in car insurance commercials... oh, even corporate images have their A to D-Lists too.) Of course, no big surprise that "Joy" resembled a circa mid-20th-century housewife with perfect hair, flawless makeup and, the biggest shocker, clean apron (with a monogrammed J).

So yes, the bestselling cookbook and brand that encouraged and empowered home cooks everywhere that they can do it all, from everyday meals to elegant entertaining, in their very own kitchens is now telling now tweaking their message for the fast-paced, nostalgic-hungry 21st century demographic: forget about it and take a shortcut with our freezer products. Or, as they coined it, "Let Joy In." (Sidenote: so now that Bellisino Foods, who got the "Joy" license, has a grandmotherly figure in Michelina's and is cornering the 30s-40s market with Joy -- who are they aiming for next? the kids with 5-year-old Chef Julian products?)

If you thought Semi-Homemade or 30-Minute Meals were awful in their way of shortcutting their food, wait till you see the "Make It Your Own!" ideas from these people: you can make "Fresh Tomato Florentine" by using their creamy chicken florentine entree and throwing in an extra half cup of cherry tomatoes or "Easy Chicken Pot Pie" by using their roasted herb chicken entree thickened with a little cornstarch and cover it with a store-bought pie crust. Amazing!

I guess what I find most abhorrent of all is that this flies in the face of everything joyful about cooking. Who really takes pride in preparing a meal straight from a freezer to skillet/oven with just a few fresh touches as an illusion garnish? And who are the marketers fooling by claiming that these foods are wholesome and healthy? (compared to other frozen entrees they're not as bad, but a cup of that florentine will still weigh in a hefty 35% of daily requirement in sodium AND saturated fat... and that's on the lofty presumption that a person will eat only one cup of pasta and nothing else for that meal.)

I understand the brand's stand-point of trying to bridge an unhealthy fast or frozen meal and a wholesome but potentially-time-consuming one, but I don't see the Joy of Cooking frozen line as a good middle ground -- it wreaks of Sandra Lee minus the tablescapes and "cocktails." Heck, I'd even advocate following Rachael Ray's show -- at least she makes more use out of fresh ingredients and you'll be whipping out the meal in about the same amount of time. Or, better yet, read up on a few cookbooks, even the now-tarnished Joy of Cooking, watch a few online videos, surf some sites, experiment in the kitchen and rediscover meals that are truly healthy, easy and, dare I say, joyful.

Ed Note 2: Thanks to Eat Me Daily blog (and LATimes Daily Dish for linking to it) for bringing this to my attention.


mattatouille said...

interesting. One of the first cookbooks I bought was an earlier edition (might be the 1997, but it seems newer, like early 2000s) of Joy of Cooking. It's a fun read and must-own for any cookbook lover. I'm on to bigger things now (Alinea is barely making dents in my evening reads...), but JOC is still nice to have around, in case you need a good chocolate chip cookie recipe (which btw, is excellent in this book). Nice blog post though.

mattatouille said...

oh, another comment, I must say that the true "joy" of cooking seems to be completely lost in this day and age. Restaurant food, while growing by leaps and bounds in the economic boom times of the 90's and early 2000s, needs to take a backstep to homecooking, which supercedes all when rubber meets the road (I think I used more idiom there than actual prose haha)

H. C. said...

I think that's the new challenge of food media and bloggers, instead of gimmicky, company-tied (and possibly -sponsored) "recipes" that try to emulate homecooked classics, they should emphasize that homecooked meals aren't that hard to plan, prepare, make and enjoy.

But I think we're heading in that direction -- Bon Appetit has a regular column called Fresh, East, Fast that's exactly that (and just came out with a cookbook highlighting those simple everyday weeknight meals), and LA Times' blog is starting to feature instructional video (love editor Russ Parsons going hands-on making that simple yet delectable italian sausage & broccoli pasta) and of course, and Epicurious is a wonderful resource for tested recipes and commentary.

Frequent Traveler said...

Unfortunately we live in a world of shortcuts.
Many people don't care about the details, and are not passionate about what they put on their tables or what comes out of their kitchens...

Cooking can be and is a joy and a passion for some. And those are the ones where what they make is memorable...

Did you see the free chocolate offer on my blog today ? They are seriously good - even if I didn't make them myself ! :)

ila said...


Great post. It's insane how people are 'too busy' to cook a decent dinner nowadays. And with restaurant foods getting more and more fancy and less homey, I think the apprehension will only get bigger.

Home cooking FTW :]


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