Presented by Elizabeth Gilbert,
by Her Great-Grandmother,
Margaret Yardley Potter.
Recently, while moving into a new house, Elizabeth Gilbert unpacked some boxes of family books that had been sitting in her mother’s attic for decades. She discovered a book called At Home on the Range (or, How to Make Friends with Your Stove) by Gilbert’s great-grandmother, Margaret Yardley Potter, and soon found that she had stumbled upon a book far ahead of its time. In her workaday cookbook, Potter espoused the importance of farmer’s markets and ethnic food (Italian, Jewish, and German), derided preservatives and culinary shortcuts, and generally celebrated new epicurean adventures. Potter takes car trips out to Pennsylvania Dutch country to eat pickles and pork. She travels to the eastern shore of Maryland, where she learns to catch and prepare eels so delicious they must be “devoured in a silence almost devout.” Part scholar, part crusader, Potter reveals the source of Gilbert’s love of food, and her warm, infectious prose.
This is a book for simple cooking and entertaining, which in my case was learned the hard way, for I started housekeeping in the all-too-glorious early 1920s when servants and food were plentiful and cheap. Dinners, even for four, were always formal; while the best gold-edged place plates, white-capped maids and a fish course were expected when more than six sat down to partake of, though not always to enjoy, dinner.
My own formal entertaining had a short life and ended within the first three years of my married career. By then a small son and a baby daughter had appeared to complicate matters, and nurses who would pinch-hit as waitresses were becoming increasingly hard to find. Nevertheless I perse- vered with the formality my mother had preached, doing my best to live up to her beautiful standards of living. Until, finally, there arrived the fatal day when I prepared the dinner that was to honor a very important and dignified guest, little knowing it was to be my last affair of the sort.
It began with the usual telephone discussions, and the promise of mother’s butler for the occasion. With her help this menu was finally evolved—we thought it a simple one, too:
Oysters on the half-shell with cocktail sauce
Clear green turtle soup
Broiled shad roe with sauce tartare in lemon baskets New potatoes with parsley butter
Small brown bread sandwiches
Sliced cucumbers in French dressing
Celery Radishes Olives
Broiled chicken New peas
Fresh pineapple salad—served in the whole fruit Cream cheese Hot toasted water biscuits Bar-le-Duc
The whole was finished off by one of those wonderful three-decker meringues for which Philadelphia caterers are still famous—followed of course by coffee and brandy in the living room, and afterwards three sedate tables of bridge.
Came the day of the dinner and also the food I had ordered; but, too, by noon came the news that the borrowed butler was on his half-yearly binge and totally unable to buttle, while that juvenile delinquent, my thoughtless baby daughter, showed signs of developing croup, and demanded much more than her share of nurse’s attention. Undaunted, I rolled up my sleeves and, side by side with cook, went to work. She made tartare sauce while I cut lemon baskets, the edges of which looked as though they had been bitten instead of pinked. I sliced cucumbers and brown bread; she pre- pared chickens, shad roe and shelled endless peas. (No Mr. Birds Eye and his lovely ready-to-cook frozen kind in those unenlightened days!) I gave up all thought of the salad and soup courses; and thanked heaven for the dependable caterer and his towering meringue which must, I felt, give my amputated dinner a final finishing touch of formality and splendor. By five in the afternoon everything was done—the lace-covered table sparkled with glass and silver, the best dishes stood ready in rows, and cook and I retired, she to snatch a short rest before her further work began, I to beautify what remained of me.
My pretty young sister, the second guest of honor, arrived at the house, bag and baggage, about six o’clock, listened with heartfelt sympathy to my tale of woe, swore she would be in there pitching as soon as she was dressed, then retired to her room, plugged in her electric vibrator and phft! every light in the house went out and, what’s more, stayed out all evening. One result of which was that it took an extra half-hour to round up two of our guests who, arriving on time and seeing our darkened windows, had gone home without ringing the bell, sure that they had mistaken the date; while the candles in the kitchen only seemed to intensify the gloomy depths from which cook’s voice spoke of an approaching nervous headache. Nurse, still radiating a slight croup-kettle odor of eucalyptus, announced dinner after the hurried cocktails, and my own nerves only relaxed when the remains of the juicy chicken that followed plump salt oysters and perfectly broiled shad roe, were removed from the table. Alas, things were going too well! Just as dessert was due a wail from the nursery caused the “waitress” to disappear like Cinderella at midnight, with a whisper to me that cook would surely be able to carry on for the concluding course.
Resigned but confident, I pushed the kitchen buzzer, waited, pushed the buzzer, waited, pushed the buzzer, then tottered through the pantry door. There in the kitchen sat cook, head in hands amidst unstacked dishes and guttering candles, gazing out of tear-filled eyes at a partially unwrapped meringue. The threatened headache was a grim reality and the poor creature could barely get upstairs. Bravely trying to keep some remnant of what I still felt was the necessary formality, I was just about to bring the meringue to the table when the guest of honor appeared in the kitchen and, with a heartening pat on my back, bore the icy pyramid to the dining-room sideboard where, amidst cheers, he announced himself as the new butler and proceeded to serve the dessert and jovially press second and third helpings with all the confidence of a stage “Jeems.” Coffee and brandy, still dignified by silver tray and cut glass decanter, were escorted into the living room by my husband, but by that time all formality had vanished and my guests continued what they maintained was their most enjoyable evening in years by shooting craps on the floor with the light of every remaining candle. When the electric company’s lineman arrived at eleven-thirty to fix a blown main fuse he was invited to try a few “rolls” before he finished the meringue, and he departed for his next call considerably richer. Our important guest really relished his kitchen supper of beer and selfmade onion sandwiches and when later he joined a game of softball in the hall, batting one of the baby’s worsted toys with a rubber-tipped plumber’s assistant, his dignity and my failure as a formal hostess were both completely forgotten, and I realized that elaborate entertaining with inadequate help was neither convincing nor worth the nerve-shattering effort.
Since then I have been shuttled financially and physically between a twelve-room house in the suburbs, a four-room shack in the country, numer- ous summer cottages and a small city apartment. An isolated and heatless farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore was my home during the war years. In all of these abodes I have found that providing a really heartfelt welcome and simple and plentiful food gives any hostess an advantage over the famous man who built the better mousetrap. A world of friends will beat a path to your door.
At Home on the Range has an official website, replete with recipes, kitchen-style updates and event listings.
Navigate this way to read about the book from Elizabeth Gilbert herself!