A SLIM, ANIMATED FIGURE, ETHAN Becker leans into the starchy steam of a pot of Idahos boiling in the kitchen of the streamlined Cincinnati house where he grew up. "If you don't love mashed potatoes," sighs Becker, 52, "you are from another planet." Author of the much-anticipated sixth edition of The Joy of Cooking—the encyclopedic how-to that made its debut on Nov. 5—Becker is rustling up America's favorite comfort food for lunch with his wife, Susan. Today, however, tradition is getting a tweak: instead of serving the spuds with lamb chops, as his mother might have, he's using them to thicken the garlic soup he's trying to perfect.

It's not every man who could depart from the culinary pathways laid down by Mom—particularly when she was Marion Rombauer Becker, the cooking maven whose own charismatic mother, Irma S. Rombauer, compiled the original Joy in 1931. Happily, Ethan (the younger of Marion's two sons with architect John Becker, who died in 1974) was taught to keep stirring the pot. "If you want to continue to be a vital part of people's lives, you have to keep up with them and lead them a little bit," he says. "My mother had a tremendous love of the modern—she revised Joy every 10 years."

Modern or not, Marion Becker managed to preserve the essence of a sentimental favorite—one whose reassuring voice made delicacies like baked Alaska seem accessible to the home cook. Her mother, a St. Louis socialite, was only an amateur when, fearing financial ruin in the wake of her husband's suicide, she cobbled together a comprehensive collection of recipes from friends and published them herself. Ever since, her chummy hints and witty commentary have soothed many a homebound novice. "I started out with The Joy of Cooking," remembers Julia Child, 85. "It's always had sensible ideas that other books don't have. And I always felt that Mrs. Joy was at my elbow helping me out."

Gone from Ethan's edition are the fried tripe, muskrat, and marshmallow pudding that were included in the 1975 edition; instead there are Buffalo wings and grilled pizza, along with dim sum and tapas. Fat grams and imported coffees are demystified, and standbys, including tuna casserole, are lightened up. The result is a book that "advances that tradition with distinction and some calculated flair," in the words of Publishers Weekly.

Not that revamping Joy was a simple task: Aside from expunging anachronisms and approving new chapters on beans and pasta, Becker (who attended Michigan's Oakland University and ran a student travel agency before apprenticing himself to his mother in the late '60s) faced a nearly two-decade legal wrangle after Marion died in 1976. He jousted with Joy's then-publisher, MacMillan, over such issues as divvying up the profits. MacMillan retaliated by trying to launch its own revise; the dispute went into legal arbitration, but each side remained adamant. Only in 1994—after Simon & Schuster had bought MacMillan and acquired Joy—did the impasse end. Editor Maria Guarnaschelli flew to Cincinnati to court Becker, and the two decided to bring in well-known chefs including Deborah Madison {Greens) to retool whole chapters. "Ethan knew it was too big a project for any one person," says Guarnaschelli. "And he knew it had to be the best."

Becker tested some of the recipes with occasional help from Susan, an advertising veteran who became his third wife last March, and John, his 18-year-old son from his second marriage. If he has his way, John will continue the culinary dynasty. "[John] has the potential to be much better at it than any of his forebears," he says .

Becker confesses that the three-year project to update Joy brought back memories of the time when Marion's kitchen was the setting for endless experiments: Along with his brother Mark (now 60 and a retired teacher), Ethan had helped critique his mother's recipes-in-the-making—an array of chicken dishes one week, a battery of beef platters the next—as Marion worked her way through each chapter. "Cookies," laughs Becker, "was great."

Unlike his publicity-shy mother, the ebullient Becker (who enjoys tending his garden when he's not presiding over the kitchen) is comfortable with the role of front man. Sitting down with Susan to the garlic soup—which he judges "a little bland"—he talks about the pleasures of teaching other cooks and, yes, about the joy of cooking. "The best tip, if you want to be known as a good cook," he says, "is to buy the freshest, most wonderful ingredients and do very little with them. It's amazing the rep you'll get just from that." In the end, Becker says, cooking should be fun. Returning to the family motto, he declares with a soupcon of self-deprecation, "It's simple—anyone who can read can cook."

MICHELLE GREEN
CINDY DAMPIER in Cincinnati

  • Contributors:
  • Cindy Dampier.