At Home on the Range, Margaret Yardley Potter and Elizabeth Gilbert
McSweeney’s Books, 250 pages
I have a particular fondness for domestic manuals from the early twentieth century. It may sound like an incredibly dull genre, but I find that the recipes, cleaning instructions, and entertaining ideas contain some pretty great stories of how life was lived a hundred years ago. For many, it was a time of rapidly changing financial and social circumstance, and these little domestic guides aimed to provide wives with a sort of a blueprint for creating a welcoming home if they couldn’t emulate the lifestyle or traditions they grew up with.
Margaret Yardley Potter, a cooking columnist for the Wilmington Star, published one of these manuals, and a copy was handed down the generations of her family. When her great-great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love), unearthed the cookbook in a moving box, she uncorked a bottle of wine and read it slowly, savouring the opportunity to get to know the legendary woman her family always called Gima. She enjoyed it so much that she thought it worthy of a re-release in 2012, and donated all proceeds to charity.
Potter was born into a wealthy Philadelphia family that had servants, sailboats and regular dinner parties. She accepted that circumstances would be greatly reduced when she married, but she did not want to lose any of the comfort or pleasure that she had previously associated with home. As a result, Potter learned to be open to new tastes, new habits, and to focus on what mattered most. Claiming that a hearty appetite and a good sense of humour were the only requirements for a good cook, At Home on the Range encourages others to employ those same virtues in their own homemaking. Potter learns how to make pizza from an Italian grocer back when international food was scandalous. She plans menus and organizes household chores to free up her time during the summer when guests are likely to drop by and stay for a week. And in the winter months, when colds and flus are making the rounds, she offers recipes and helpful suggestions for getting through the boredom. Witty, ingenious, and always practical, At Home on the Range still offers excellent tips for living well.