At Home on the Range
Margaret Yardley Potter with a forward by her great granddaughter Elizabeth Gilbert
McSweeney’s Books: 256 pp., $24
You’ve probably never seen the fine art of bread-making broken down quite like this in a recipe: “Now relax. Sit down, light a cigarette, write a letter or make your own plans for the next fifteen minutes while the dough ‘tightens up’ as we bakers say.
“Is your cigarette finished? Let’s go. This is fun.”
So writes Margaret Yardley Potter in her cookbook “At Home on the Range.” Never heard of Potter? You’re not alone. Potter was a one-time food columnist for the Wilmington Star in Wilmington, Delaware, whose cookbook, published in 1947, went through exactly one edition. Until now.
Potter’s more well-known descendant, writer Elizabeth Gilbert, reintroduces her great-grandmother to readers in a forward to this new release. At once delightfully humorous and remarkably insightful, “At Home on the Range” is written both for — and ahead of — its time. Recipes aren’t rigidly structured, but flow like a casual kitchen conversation between close friends, various dishes woven together with stories and motherly advice, relayed with a wit that apparently runs in the family.
Gilbert (“Eat Pray Love” and, more recently, “Committed”) shares some of Potter’s history in her forward, revealing a life that was not easy. Raised in a wealthy and refined family, Potter’s finances dwindled over the course of her marriage. She struggled with alcoholism, which contributed to her death in 1955. Through it all, Potter apparently found a way to make the best of any situation, with a rather bohemian sensibility. She was, Gilbert notes, “not the first or last woman in the history of female hardship to take refuge in food.”
“At Home on the Range” does just that, starting with the first chapter: “Weekend guests without a Weakened Hostess.” Because a hostess needs to enjoy her guests, too, Potter shares practical advice and sample menus — recipes follow throughout the book — with suggested preparation schedules to simplify a number of dishes, all to give the hostess more free time to have fun.
She dispenses similar advice — on ingredients, recipes and life — throughout the book. When an expensive ingredient can be substituted for a cheaper alternative, Potter heartily endorses it, as with substituting onions for more costly shallots: “Again, from experience, I know that few can tell the difference between shallots and a small scrape of mild onion — and the screams of epicures, including those of my French hairdresser, fall on deaf ears as I write.”
“At Home on the Range” was published between the end of World War II and the start of the 1950s, “right at that unfortunate moment in American culinary history when our country was embarking on its regrettable love affair with convenient and processed foods,” as Gilbert notes. Potter would have none of this. About pre-grated Parmesan cheese, Potter writes, “the grated pasteurized ‘Italian Type,’ whatever that means. It is the kind that comes sealed in shaker-top cans with all its real flavor killed.” Go with good ingredients — real ingredients — when flavor matters. On cooking with wine, Potter states simply: “Never try to cook with poor wine. You wouldn’t drink it, would you?”
Still, Potter stresses keeping an open mind with unusual ingredients and cuisine — to never be afraid to try something new. She shares an entire chapter (humorously titled “You Don’t Eat That?”) on exploring foods, such as tripe, fricasseed rabbit, tongue, calf’s head, brains, eels, even cockscombs — “it took wartime rationing and an adjacent chicken farm before I attempted them,” and learning to like them.
When reading “Home on the Range,” it’s hard at times not to burst out laughing. She shares a side story about exploring the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside with her husband. “Finally, we arrived at Intercourse — yes, there is just such a town, find it on the map — whence we gleefully mailed unsigned but post-marked cards saying, of course, ‘Wish you were here,’ to various friends none of whom knew we were in that part of town.”
Potter’s “cautionary tale” about making rice reads like something out of an"I Love Lucy"episode, and her chapter on bread is downright hilarious. She opens the chapter explaining various things her family did that made them seem strange to others. “But if these idiosyncrasies drew raised eyebrows, the fact that I now make my own bread because, forsooth, I like to — well, that seems to have definitely put me beyond the pale.” She then walks you through the method. When the dough is finally ready (and you’ve finished that cigarette — this was published in the 1940s, remember, when smoking was still a social norm), she advises a little physical interaction with the dough: “Now for more fun. When your dough has doubled in size, attack it right in its bowl. Pretend it’s your worst enemy and give it a great punch right in the solar plexus to deflate its ego. Give it a couple more good lefts and rights and remove it from the bowl to the floured breadboard and cut it into quarters. There, madam, are four loaves of bread.”
If the recipes themselves are at times a bit dated, and they are, the wisdom and enthusiasm Potter shares are not. “Use only one standard in trying strange foods or seasonings: that you like the result. Follow a new recipe exactly, the first time it is tried, but after that add individual touches unafraid, lightheartedly paying little attention to my or anyone else’s instructions except as they appeal to your particular taste.” Advice, like this book, to treasure.
For sample recipes from “At Home on the Range,” check out Food’s Daily Dish blog at latimes.com/dailydish.