Marion Becker: the joy of cooking and friendship

Joy of Cooking

Story and photo
by Dorothy Weil

I believe in the six degrees of separation because so many of the people whose friendship I've treasured became characters in my life, before I ever met them.

My friendship with Marion Becker began when I was a young bride in the fifties. I had just one cookbook, The Joy of Cooking.

My husband Sid and I lived in a tiny one bedroom apartment. Every afternoon when I got home from my classes at the Cincinnati Art Academy, I opened my culinary Bible, which even had a red ribbon to mark one's place, like the Old and New Testament.

Each day I tried to create one of the dishes. I made beef Stroganoff, lamb pilaf, chicken cacciatore, all sorts of exotic things. Sid ate it all with gusto.

Luckily he would eat anything, because I was not the most apt pupil at the stove. But I kept on trying.

With the reassuring voice of Marion providing all one needed to know about ingredients and measurements, poaching, de-boning, sautéing and steaming, I did improve.

Actually, many of my creations were pretty good; but only with the master chef guiding my brand-new copper bottomed pans. I still have just one cook book, a grease-stained, falling-apart copy of the 1975 edition of the Joy, signed by Marion.

Almost twenty years after I listened to Marion's disembodied voice advising me on cooking, by the web of people who link us all together, I was sitting in her living room at "Cockaigne," her country house in Anderson Township, a pleasant suburban area of Cincinnati.

It was set on many woodland acres, a modest sized, very modern house designed by her architect husband, John.

I had never pictured Marion as a person; she was a voice on a printed page. Here, serving chicken salad, French bread, and iced tea, was a plump, pretty, very solid little woman, a gracious, humorous, fun-loving hostess.

Of course, she had to be fun-loving. Our mutual friends who were house guests of ours, and took me along to lunch at Marion's (at her insistence), are the sort of people who are always up for a snow ball fight, a bourbon-drinking bout (him), a hike, a canoe trip, a water war.

Reid at the time was a city planner, and Sari was, and still is, a gifted story teller who turns out tapes that our grandchildren love. She can do any accent, and tells stories on herself and others that I have always found more amusing than "Lake Wobegone."

We laughed a lot at that initial lunch with Marion, while enjoying the view of the green lawn sweeping toward the woods surrounding the Beckers' house. It came out that Marion was a fallen away Unitarian, and I, who had had had a part-time job as the children's Religious Education director at our church, declared that I had been sent to bring her back to the fold.

We definitely bonded, though I think I didn't tell her how much time I had spent at the stove with her looking over my shoulder. Marion had so many passions besides cooking and The Book.

She had trained in dance, though she was, as she told it, "the most willing and least gifted pupil." She had taught art, helped bring modern painting to Cincinnati, loved ballet, and was a consummate gardener. Alongside John, she was also involved in most of the liberal causes in the city.

After lunch we all took a stroll through the Beckers' woods. Marion knew the popular and scientific name of every flower and herb that surrounded the paths, many of which she and John had planted.

It was a magic place, with a little wooden footbridge over a narrow stream that reminded both Sari and me of the Billy Goats Gruff. Every tiny green shoot was watched over and tended by Marion.

We Weils became friends with Marion and John on our own. I remember a picnic at the opening of the Nature Center, a large acreage of land in Clermont County that Marion and John helped turn into a place open to the public, a retreat from concrete, malls and traffic.

There is a pavilion, hills with walking paths, a meadow, an educational center with displays and books, and nature items for sale. The daffodils in spring are a dazzling yellow blanket. Marion brought a picnic and her special brownies, and I found that one had to eat in the order Marion decreed; she was no passive provider.

My son Bruce, then probably about ten--this was the late sixties--enjoyed the fruits of my fortuitous first encounter. Marion and John invited him and his friend John Rose for an occasional overnight, with breakfast pancakes made by Marion. How many people can say that?

That the author of one of the "one hundred and fifty most influential books in America" (so designated by the New York Public Library), made you pancakes?

And how panicked would you be when it was your turn to entertain the author of the Joy of Cooking?

At the time, Sid was beginning his own law firm and I was in graduate school working for a degree in English. Marion and John, a tall, handsome white-haired man, were about a quarter of a century older than we, had been around the world many times, and had taken part in every cultural advance in their years in Cincinnati.

John's architectural firm had redesigned the Art Museum. Marion was a household name. I sometimes wondered what the Beckers saw in us.

We had the arts in common, enjoyed the opera together at the original old wooden theater at the zoo. And now I realize, older people who are still vital and lively, like to be with the young, for a change from their contemporaries.

At all ages you have to reach out to new people, for friends die and move away or drift into new orbits. Marion and John especially liked energetic, ambitious young people.

But what to have for dinner? And how to serve it? We were living in our third house, a large but characterless one-floor with a flat, uninspired back yard.

It was summer, and we liked to eat on our porch, but were dining on a rickety folding metal table. I rushed out to buy decent lawn furniture, couldn't find any that we could afford, and just threw a new cloth over the table in place.

I arranged a variety of mismatched chairs on the lawn by a willow tree to serve the pre-prandials. It was hardly the gracious, smooth settings Marion and John were used to.

Back to the biggest problem: what to fix? Something fancy? Pretentious and bound to flop. Should it be from the Joy or a special family recipe? I didn't have any special family recipes. My grandmother and mother were both terrible cooks.

I wanted the evening to go smoothly, so nothing would do that required too much last minute preparation. I decided on lamb curry with rice and a green salad. Inspired! That was what everyone served at dinner parties.

I did have some lovely fresh shrimp my father in law had provided--he was in the sea food business and often brought us good shrimp and even caviar. I worked anxiously all day, standing at the sink to peel and de-vein the shrimp for an appetizer.

For dessert, I dumbly tried chocolate mousse, something that I had never tasted, but that sounded elegant. It turned out sort of runny.

The guests arrived. I got the children out of the way--as one did in those days. We entertained as though we had a staff of servants and a nanny.

As the curry warmed in the oven, we ensconced our guests on the lawn chairs outdoors, and I served the shrimp and some ordinary Kraft's cream cheese I had sparked up with a little crumbled blue cheese.

Sid served the wine: cold duck (I now realize, an oenophile's nightmare, worse even than Mogen David). I could see Marion eying my pathetic attempts to hide our outdoor air-conditioning unit with a few scraggly Anthony Waters shrubs.

Why did I put them there, or her where she, the consummate gardener, could see them?

She said, "I see you are a shrub gardener." Her eyes twinkled with amusement.

We talked about Nureyev and Fonteyn, the celebrated ballet partners. I had recently seen them dance Giselle in Chicago. People worshiped them. There had been nothing like them since Nijinsky, and has been nothing since, according to some of us who love ballet. Marion and I were both completely in love with Nureyev.

We talked about Viet Nam, for the Beckers were interested in world events as well as the arts; at the time neither of us was convinced of the right direction the US should take.Our guests seemed to find the food edible.

There were no big horrors like too much curry powder or ice water down any one's neck. I was jittery about the mousse. It was so runny! I apologized for it (I don't know exactly what I expected).

Marion said, "It's chocolate." I was truly relieved.

The only item I remember being singled out for praise by Marion, because I thought it was quite funny, was the cream cheese with the bits of blue cheese thrown in.

John and Marion were delightful to know. John was a witty, wry sort of person. Marion was a go-getter who never stopped moving into new directions. Of a projected trip to Europe, John, then in his seventies, said, "I'd like to circumscribe my activities a bit."

"I think you are going to be packing up," I told him. It was clear Marion was not going to cut back. After the last edition of The Joy that she worked on, she wrote and published a book about wild flowers, a labor of love called Wild Wealth. Janice Forberg, an artist friend of both Marion and myself, created the art, beautiful drawings of wild flowers.

John died in 1974 of brain cancer and Marion in 1976. They had just been achieving real financial success. The advance on the 1975 edition of the Joy of Cooking was $700,000, an unheard of sum in those years.

Marion had had surgery for breast cancer earlier in her life, and it recurred. She also suffered from a severe form of edema that made her arms and wrists swell; I never questioned the bands she wore on her wrists, and did not know until after her death, how much pain she had undergone.

Near the end, I ran into her in the hall of the hospital where my mother-in-law was a patient, walking with John holding her arm. When I asked what was she was there for, she whispered in my ear, "I just lost another boob."

Marion continued even after John's death to attend our literary club, "Noonday," pushing two tanks of oxygen. After she died, we were surprised to receive a post card from her.

Always in control and organized, she had made her polite goodbyes well ahead of going. The card said,

"Think of me as I think of you--My Family and My Friends--. . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I leave life with regret that it took me so long to glimpse its creative wholeness. May greater insights linked with bolder actions be our common future. Hail and Farewell, Marion Rombauer Becker" Marion has been missed by all the people lucky enough to know her.Of course, my well-thumbed Joy of Cooking is still nearby in the kitchen, pages loose, spine broken, the famous red ribbon somewhat greasy. I rarely try any of the recipes I labored over long before knowing the author. But if I need advice, I still have Marion to tell me what to do.

After Marion Backer memoir,
read more about author and artist Dorothy Weil.