Oh, Joy


Portion sizes and calorie counts in The Joy of Cooking have burgeon over the years, along with our waistlines.

Portion sizes and calorie counts in The Joy of Cooking have burgeoned over the years, along with our waistlines.

If you’re of a certain age–like, say, mine–you probably grew up in a household where The Joy of Cooking held an honored spot on the cookbook shelf. Well, maybe not honored in our house, since my mom didn’t really like cooking all that much, but it was a reference to which she turned with some regularity.

First published commercially in 1936, Joy has been updated every few years since. (Irma S. Rombauer had self-published the original edition in 1931.) Leave it Cornell University professor Brian Wansink, Ph.D., to examine how the cookbook has evolved over the years to reflect our changing food habits. Wansink is the author of Mindless Eating and heads up Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, where he and his colleagues do amazing research into our attitudes and behavior when it comes to food. He and former postdoc researcher Collin Payne culled through 18 recipes that have been published in every addition of Joy, including such beloved American faves as brownies, sugar cookies, mac ‘n’ cheese, and beef stroganoff.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that portions have gotten bigger over the decades, but I was shocked to discover they’ve ballooned 63 percent. Um, that’s a lot. In 1936, the average recipe was a trim 268 calories. Seventy years later, the average was  436 calories per serving. “What served four people in 1986 would have served almost seven people by 1936 standards,” says Wansink. He thinks analyzing other long-published cookbooks would yield similar results.

What served four people in the 1986 edition of The Joy of Cooking would have served almost seven people by 1936 standards. 

“People often blame eating out as being one of the big culprits for gaining weight, but this study suggests that what we do in our own homes may be equally bad or even worse,” he says. “Family size has gotten smaller, but calorie content and portion sizes have gotten bigger.” Several factors contribute to this, he explains, including:

  • Americans have grown larger.
  • Restaurant portions have gotten bigger, which has changed our expectations for portions at home.
  • Food has gotten cheaper, so we spend a smaller proportion of our income on it and buy more of it.

Now, the last point is really interesting, because when Joy’s 1986 edition was published in the heart of the go-go ’80s, and even when the 2006 version was published, food was indeed cheap. But as we all know, the cost of food has risen steadily in the past year, while salaries have dropped, people have lost their jobs, and the economy has slowed to a deep and tenacious recession (depression, some say). I can’t help wondering how this will influence Joy’s editors as they prepare the 80th anniversary edition for 2011. It will be interesting to see if portion sizes and calorie counts hark back to Irma Rombauer’s Depression-era incarnations.

Food prices have risen sharply over the past year, and we’re in the midst of a stubborn and deep recession. It will be interesting to see if the upcoming 80th anniversary edition of Joy harks back to the portion sizes and calorie counts of its Depression-era roots.

In the meantime, when cooking from the current version of Joy, Wansink has some advice: If you’re preparing a recipe that’s supposed to serve 4, set aside half the recipe to enjoy another night. “Families need to be aware that serving size and calorie composition of classic recipes “should be downsized to counteract growing waistlines.”

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