REMEMBER when people used to eat sweetbreads--creamed or skewered or sauced? Sweetbreads were sold for a song. So, in 1936, when Irma Rombauer published the second edition of "Joy of Cooking," the book was rife with sweetbread recipes.

The first book set the precedent. When it was published in 1931, the nation was rippling with repercussions of easy credit, and a cookbook full of recipes for cheap meals was a godsend.

Not to mention that the book was easier to read than most. All manner of cultural allusions filled it with romance reminiscent of a Jane Austen novel. The traditional "prose" format of recipe writing was changed to the "poetry" style. That way, recipe ingredients -- printed vertically in boldface type -- became immediately apparent; precise wording replaced long-winded explanations, making the directions clearer and easier to follow.

But most important, the "Joy" contained tried-and-true versions of delicious dishes gleaned from the author's years of world travel (as daughter of a diplomat) and rich German heritage.

And the "Joy" lives on. Fifty years and 13 revisions later, grandmothers and mothers-in-law still pass on the first-cookbook tradition. If it isn't in the "Joy," the new cook doesn't need it. Even publishing is a family affair, passed from Rombauer to daughter Marion Becker to grandson Ethan Becker.

The "Joy's" longevity can be traced to its universal appeal. As society goes, so does the "Joy." Changes in its emphasis correspond with changes in American life style.

The cookbook has always been general -- noted for being concise, clear and comprehensive. But subtle changes have kept it relevant so that cooks in the 1930s were as pleased with the money-saving recipes as cooks in the '40s were with suggestions for stretching red meat that war had made so precious.

Some of the most noticeable changes, says Ethan Becker, are in the entertaining sections. "The 1936 and '43 editions assumed that if you were having a big do at home there would be servants, even if brought in temporarily," he says.

These days, while space is given to formal entertaining, the contents lean more toward informal parties, picnics, buffets and even campground cooking.

The 1943 edition also contained recipes and suggestions for sugarless cooking -- a section full of recipes for cakes and cookies sweetened with honey, corn syrup and maple syrup.

"When the revision of this book was begun a year ago," says the preface to the 1943 cookbook, "we had no intimation that international obligations would lead our land of plenty to ration cards. It now goes to print with a number of emergency chapters added, written to meet the difficulties that beset the present-day cook."

And so there were lists: four pages on "economical main dishes" (which contained 11 veal dishes) and "high protein dishes with little or no meat" (which included soybean souffle' and peanut loaf).

In fact, it could be the lists that contribute to the popularity of the book. These -- in addition to very basic information on such things as cleaning game, braising meat and making emulsion sauces -- are what make the book so useful as a reference. It's the "abouts," says Ethan Becker, that make the book worth the money -- recipes or no recipes.

The lists have grown and multiplied since the early edition. With the wartime cookbook came the first calorie chart, which expanded in later editions congruent to Americans' waistlines and interest in calorie counting. Another first in that "Joy" was a canned-food table, which listed different sized cans (No. 1 and No. 2) and the amount of food contained in each (No. 1 holds 11 ounces of food, or 1 1/3 cups).

That, says Ethan Becker, marked the beginning of the working cook's love affair with convenience foods. The canned-food emphasis reached a peak in the '50s, he says, and continued into the '60s.

The early editions reflected the dominance of the large, nuclear family as well. Beverage recipes called for large quantities, main dishes always made plenty, and there was invariably an appendix containing suggestions for feeding the invalid, who was presumably kept at home.

The '60s cookbook marked the interest in rotisserie cooking, which Becker says "died because they were so hard to clean." It was a mistake, he says, to give the rotisserie so much recognition, but the gadgets were immensely popular for a while.

And besides, the "Joy" is known for its ability to adapt with the times (although the microwave oven will probably be shunned forever). The upcoming revision will include recipes suitable for a food processor as well as continuing attention to ethnic foods, which have enjoyed unabated popularity.

Becker admits that he's been slow on the uptake where the vegetarian trend is concerned. When the '75 edition went to press, he still believed it to be a passing fancy. Now he knows better, and much like his grandmother's World War II listing of meatless recipes, Becker will make sure there is a cross reference for vegetarian foods. "They're in there," he says, referring to past editions. "But people just don't always know where to find them."

It can easily be said, however, that as much as the "Joy" reflected the trends in society, it set them as well. Perhaps it was Rombauer's German heritage that caused her to cling undaunted to traditions of exquisite food attractively presented and to introduce European tastes to Americans. For even in the 1936 edition, she says such things as: "If you can pry your family loose from the generally accepted American custom of serving a cocktail with (hors d'oeuvres), serve dry sherry or vermouth." It seems she was way ahead of the white-wine routine.

But that is by no means the only instance of culinary foresight. The 1936 recipe for "cheese custard pie" was, in reality, a quiche. It came, she said, from their "vile-tempered" Swiss cook, who, "while she was certainly not born with a silver spoon in her mouth -- although it was large enough to accommodate several -- I am convinced she arrived with a cooking spoon in her hand." Like quiche, this cheese custard pie "was never twice the same."

About hors d'oeuvres, she said, "Serve what appeals to your imagination, but remember that, unlike the overture to an opera, it is unwise to forecast any of the joys that are to follow during the meal." Keep it light, was her sage advice, and the cocktail hour short, to avoid jading the palate.

That '36 edition contained, in a manner, recipes for homemade pasta, "creamed scallops and mushrooms" (perhaps the forerunner to chi-chi coquilles St. Jacques), gnocchi, polenta, cheese fondue and homemade cottage cheese. There were pages on souffle's and directions on cooking "vegetables as short a time as possible. As soon as they are barely tender, drain them at once." Could proponents of nouvelle cuisine be reading their old copies of the "Joy"?

One 1936 recipe received the banal dubbing "spinach in pancakes" -- a pedestrian title, perhaps, but crepes florentine nonetheless. Her recipe for veal stew, she said, was much better than blanquette de veau. In that same edition, recipes for blini, puff pastry and even bran muffins could be found.

And it was Marion Rombauer Becker, the author's daughter and co-author of several editions, who had what should be the last word on beef wellington: "If time is no object and your aim is to out-Jones the Joneses, you can serve this twice-roasted but rare beef encased in puff paste -- but don't quote us as devotees."

As the "Joy" has both followed and set trends, the recipes have remained honest, appealing and elegant. A few of them follow (but not in exact "Joy" format).

BROWNIE-FUDGE SQUARES (Makes 48)

From the 1936 edition: The definitive brownie recipe about which Irma Rombauer quotes, "Than which there are no others," and her grandson says, "I went to college on those brownies." 2 cups sugar 4 ounces bitter chocolate 3/4 pound butter 4 eggs 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon vanilla 1 cup bread flour 1 cup nut meats

Sift the sugar. Melt the chocolate and butter and set aside to cool. Beat eggs and salt until light. Add the sifted sugar gradually. Continue to beat until these ingredients are light and creamy. Fold in the melted mixture and the vanilla. Sift and add the flour. Fold in the nuts. Line a 9-by-13-inch pan with heavy waxed paper. Pour in the batter. Bake in a 325-degree oven about 30 minutes. When the cake has cooled, cut into oblongs or squares.

Note: In later editions, the butter was reduced to 1/2 cup. This recipe has been made very successfully with all-purpose flour.

POT ROAST WITH CRANBERRIES (6 servings)

As unusual as this recipe sounds, it has been tested and enjoyed many times by Post writer Anne Crutcher. The recipe is not included in the new edition of the "Joy." 3 pounds chuck, round or other beef Garlic Flour 2 tablespoons fat 1/4 cup chopped onion 2 cups boiling water 2 cups cranberries Salt and pepper

Rub the meat with garlic. Dredge it with flour. In a heavy pot, heat fat over high flame. Saute' the onion briefly, then remove it from the pan. Sear the meat on all sides in the fat until it is dark brown. Add the water and the onions. There should be 1/2 inch of liquid in the pot. Reduce the heat and cover the pot closely. Taking care that the liquid does not boil, simmer it slowly about 1 hour. Add the cranberries and more water if the roast is dry. Continue to simmer until the meat is done, 1 to 2 more hours. Season the meat with salt and pepper. Serve with noodles or dumplings.

WHITE BREAD (Makes 2 loaves)

This very basic recipe for delicious white bread was a weekend regular at our house during winter months when it was served with butter, cheese and beer. It keeps and freezes well. Vegetable shortening or oil may be substituted for lard to avoid a special trip to the store. 1 cup milk 1 cup hot water 1 tablespoon lard 1 tablespoon butter 2 tablespoons sugar 2 1/2 teaspoons salt 1 package active dried yeast 1/4 cup warm water 6 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Scald the milk. Add water. Pour these over the lard, butter, sugar and salt. Set aside. In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup warm water. Set aside. When the first mixture is lukewarm, combine it with the yeast. Stir in 3 cups of flour. Beat the batter for 1 minute, then add remaining flour. Toss the dough on a floured board or countertop. Knead it well, folding the edges of the dough toward the center and pressing it down, repeating this motion until it no longer adheres to the board and is smooth, elastic and full of bubbles. Place the dough in a bowl and cover it with a cloth. Permit it to rise in a warm place until it has doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. Cut it down by kneading it to its original bulk and let it rise again until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours. Shape the dough lightly into loaves, place them in two greased 5-by-9-inch tins, filling the tins about half-full. Let the dough rise again until doubled in bulk. Bake the loaves at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven setting to 350 degrees and bake until the bread shrinks from the sides of the pan (about 40 minutes). Remove it at once from the pans and place it on a wire cake rack to cool. 1931, 1936, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1946, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1975 by The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. From the book "Joy of Cooking" by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker