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Maria Guarnaschelli, influential cookbook editor, dies at 79

Maria Guarnaschelli, right, with her daughter, chef Alex Guarnaschelli, in New York in 2013. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Food Network Magazine)
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Maria Guarnaschelli, an indomitable cookbook editor who forged a new canon of kitchen classics and brought her exacting tastes — both literary and culinary — to undertakings including a massive update of the time-honored tome “Joy of Cooking,” died Feb. 6 in Manhasset, N.Y. She was 79.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Alex Guarnaschelli, a prominent New York chef and regular on Food Network programming. The cause was complications of heart disease, according to an announcement from the publishing house W.W. Norton, where Mrs. Guarnaschelli had been a vice president and senior editor for nearly two decades until her retirement in 2017. She had spent the earlier years of her career at Scribner and William Morrow.

Mrs. Guarnaschelli was widely recognized as one of the most influential forces in the world of cookbook publishing, cultivating writers whose cooking guides became mainstays of American kitchens. Her reputation grew along with their success.

“I’m a powerful woman,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. “Even my husband has told me he’s a little afraid of me. I’m unconventional. I’m relentless. I’m passionate. When I believe in something, I’m like a … warrior. That’s frightening to people. Maybe in another century I would have been a witch and burned at the stake.”

She earned the devoted loyalty of many of her writers, who over the years included Jeff Smith of the “Frugal Gourmet” franchise; Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of “The Cake Bible” (1988) and other baking classics; Lynne Rossetto Kasper, former host of the popular public radio program “The Splendid Table”; Judy Rodgers, author of “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” (2002); Molly Stevens, author of “All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking” (2004); and J. Kenji López-Alt, author of “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science” (2015).

“She didn’t just make beautiful cookbooks,” culinary expert Rick Rodgers said in an interview, reflecting on Mrs. Guarnaschelli’s career. “She made cookbooks that changed the way Americans cook.”

For Mrs. Guarnaschelli, her manuscripts were not the kitchen equivalent of coffee table books — things of beauty that telegraphed sophistication but rarely imparted it from their places of repose. Rather, cookbooks were essential tools to be written with professionalism and precision.

Working on “The Cake Bible,” Mrs. Guarnaschelli supported the author when she insisted that the book include weight as well as volume, affording more exact measurements of flour and sugar than the cups and tablespoons most commonly used in American kitchens.

“Who but Maria would have had the daring to publish a cookbook with charts and weights and put her heart and soul into the work,” Levy Beranbaum wrote in a tribute to Mrs. Guarnaschelli. They worked together on seven volumes, Levy Beranbaum said in an interview; ‘The Cake Bible” is today in its 56th printing.

In international cuisine, Mrs. Guarnaschelli was credited with elevating the sophistication of books available to American home chefs through her work with writers including Julie Sahni — author of “Classic Indian Cooking” (1980), which was Mrs. Guarnaschelli’s first cookbook — Rick Bayless, a doyen of Mexican cuisine; and Fuchsia Dunlop, a food writer who specializes in Chinese cooking.

She allowed them “to use unusual and exotic ingredients with no apology,” Rodgers observed. “The reader had to come up to the level of the author. The author did not come down to the level of the home cook and make excuses like, ‘I know you’re not going to be able to find this chili . . .’ ”

Mrs. Guarnaschelli took on her most high-profile project in the early 1990s at Scribner, which by then was the publisher of “Joy of Cooking,” the gargantuan red-and-white volume that generations of women received when they married or otherwise left home. By the time Mrs. Guarnaschelli’s update of the book was published in 1997, the saga had become, in the description of the Los Angeles Times, “one of the biggest cookbook stories of the decade.”

Irma S. Rombauer, a St. Louis homemaker seeking income after her husband’s suicide, had published the first edition of “Joy” in 1931 as a collection of recipes from her kitchen and those of her neighbors. The book was handed down through the family — her daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, and then a grandson, Ethan Becker, oversaw subsequent editions — and through various publishers on its way to becoming one of the most popular cookbooks in American history.

By the early 1990s, it had not undergone an update since 1975, and Scribner, along with some readers, had concluded that one was long overdue. The task, and a $5 million budget to complete it, was entrusted to Mrs. Guarnaschelli.

“When I learned that the monumental undertaking had fallen to me,” Mrs. Guarnaschelli later reflected, “I was so daunted that while going from the city to the country, hoping to sort out my thoughts, I drove my car straight into a trailer truck.”

Mrs. Guarnaschelli enlisted 130 cooks, many of them specialists in particular cuisines or styles of cooking, to produce what she envisioned as a thoroughly modernized version of a book that previous readers had known as the standby of their mothers and grandmothers.

The amount of butter in recipes was reduced, if not cut entirely. Also eliminated were more than a few dishes calling for chicken livers and sections on canning and preserving (“Who does that stuff anymore anyway?’” Mrs. Guarnaschelli quipped). Out went raccoon meat and beaver tail; in came tofu. Gone were instructions in how to skin a squirrel.

Instead of “macaroni with tomatoes, livers, mushrooms and cheese,” the new “Joy” offered “roasted red pepper and goat-cheese lasagna.” In place of “tomato-soup mystery cake” was “reduced-fat chocolate mousse cake.” Rather than “Chinese meatballs with sweet-and-sour sauce,” readers of the new edition received a recipe for “spicy Sichuan noodles” along with tips on how to use chopsticks.

Of the 4,500 recipes in the updated “Joy,” only 50 were unchanged from the earlier edition.

“I didn’t start out to hack it to death, but I did, slowly,” Mrs. Guarnaschelli told The Washington Post.

Most controversially, the folksy voices of the original Depression-era author and her progeny were replaced by a more expert, but also more impersonal, third-person authority — the voice, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle observed, “of high-powered New York editor Maria Guarnaschelli.”

Responding to criticism of contributors and readers who missed the old “Joy,” Mrs. Guarnaschelli remarked to the Chattanooga Times that “my motto is ‘change or die.’ ‘Joy of Cooking’ was in danger of becoming quaint.”

The updated edition, released after more than three years of toil, sold an impressive 1.5 million copies in five years. Subsequent editions restored a degree of the volume’s original voice, with a 2019 edition bearing the names of Irma Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker, along with Irma Rombauer’s great-grandson, John Becker, and his wife Megan Scott.

Maria Albano DiBenedetto was born in Brookline, Mass., on April 18, 1941. Her father was a salesman, and her mother was a homemaker. Alex Guarnaschelli said her mother began to develop her interest in cooking as a child.

She received a bachelor’s degree in foreign languages from Emmanuel College in Boston in 1962 and a master’s degree in Russian literature from Yale University in 1964. The following year she met her husband, John Stephen Guarnaschelli, who died in 2018.

Besides their daughter, of New York City, survivors include a sister; two brothers; and a granddaughter.

Along with cookbooks, Mrs. Guarnaschelli edited nonfiction works including “You Just Don’t Understand” by linguistics scholar Deborah Tannen and “The Language Instinct” by neuroscientist Steven Pinker, among many other works of science, as well as works of fiction by Edward P. Jones, Anne Enright and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma. But she remained best known for her work on cookbooks, foremost among them “Joy of Cooking.”

Through all its turmoil, the book remains a standard in American kitchens, the sort of gift some brides receive twice or more at their wedding showers, because so many gift-givers regard it as indispensable.

“Nobody likes change, especially because ‘Joy’ is connected to I think happy times in people’s lives, or important times, crucial times, when people get married, when they get their own apartment, even when they get a divorce,” Mrs. Guarnaschelli said on PBS in 1997. “This is like a friend, a sign of stability.”

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