This is a book for cooks.
And mothers, and grandmothers, and those who love to entertain.
In short: “At Home on the Range” is a book tailor-made for a place like Western New York, where we are practical, family-oriented, resourceful – and fond of a good meal.
This one-of-a-kind book, by Margaret Yardley Potter, is the May selection of The Buffalo News Book Club.
And, if you read along with us this month, you’re in for a springtime treat.
For “At Home on the Range,” first published in 1947 by Potter, who died in 1955, is a singular book that blends memoir and cookery with healthy doses of humor and down-to-earth domesticity.
The book was rediscovered a few years ago by Elizabeth Gilbert, the best-selling author of books including “Eat, Pray, Love” (the movie version starred Julia Roberts) and “Committed.”
Potter was Gilbert’s great-grandmother, and she writes a charming introduction to the vintage volume here.
“The copy of the cookbook that I inherited belonged to my own grandmother, our beloved and long-gone Nini, whose penciled notes (‘Never apologize for your cooking!’) are still in the margins,” writes Gilbert, in her lengthy introduction.
Gilbert discovered the book – which is divided into pithy chapters, on topics ranging from egg cookery to bread-baking to how to entertain “weekend guests without a weakened hostess” – shortly before she had it published again in 2012, which is when The Buffalo News reviewed it.
Gilbert tells here of how she encountered the long out-of-print volume for the first time.
“All I can say is that I finally picked up Gima’s cookbook this spring at the age of forty-one, when I found it at the bottom of a box,” Gilbert writes, of her great-grandmother, “which I was finally unpacking because I was finally settling into the house where I hope and pray to finally stay put.”
“I cracked it open and read it in one rapt sitting. No, that’s not entirely true: I wasn’t really sitting, or at least not for long. After the first few pages, I jumped up and dashed through the house to find my husband, so I could read parts of it to him: Listen to this! The humor! The insight! The sophistication!”
The cooking here is the kind that is delightful to read, even without a stove nearby.
For Potter is a humor-laced narrator of her own recipes.
She tackles, in the book, cooking lessons from the simple (how to poach an egg or make an omelet, in the chapter happily titled “Egg Yourself on in Emergencies”) to the complex, like kidney stew and English plum pudding and “Philadelphia ice cream,” which Potter writes was George Washington’s favorite and “has no equal.”
Tasting this ice cream, Potter writes, makes it “very easy to understand why the youthful nation that originally produced it has since become a great world power.”
Potter was a woman who started with advantages, in birth and her early life.
She was the daughter of a Philadelphia family, the Yardleys, that had money and social position – “late nineteenth-century Main Line Philadelphia rich, which was still pretty darn rich,” as Gilbert puts it in her introduction.
As a young woman, Margaret Yardley married an attorney, Sheldon Potter, and had two children.
But her marriage changed the circumstances of her life greatly; she was no longer wealthy.
She ended up working as a newspaper columnist on food and cooking, and living in places far humbler than she had in her early years.
But, in “At Home on the Range,” even more delightful than Potter’s recipes is her attitude.
Where both cooking and housekeeping were concerned, her policy seemed to be to strive for quality, accept mistakes gracefully – and maintain high spirits throughout.
The book is practical, yes. It is also positive, upbeat, happy-go-lucky.
In writing about a “mixing party,” where guests are invited to put together recipes for fruitcake or other delicacies in the host’s home, Potter explains that despite the “mild shambles” one’s home becomes during the party, the happiness of the guests is “worth a few crushed raisins on an easily cleaned rug.”
In a chapter on entertaining, Potter blithely advises readers to turn “household crises” into party-planning opportunities.
She tells of one party she threw, immediately before having her downstairs rooms wallpapered. Potter writes that she had taken all the pictures off the walls, and was left with bare, strange-looking rooms.
“Unconcerned, we presented each guest after dinner with a large package of colored crayons and allowed them to satisfy the wicked urge that we all have to deface a blank surface,” Potter writes.
“Even next morning’s early rising to forestall the paperhanger’s crew and erase some of the more realistic efforts couldn’t spoil the memory of twelve supposedly grown-up, settled people having a completely uninhibited and uproarious evening.”
Potter was in her early 60s when she died, from the effects of alcoholism, her great-granddaughter tells us here.
This book – cooking guide, domestic manual, cracklingly funny and wise glimpse of one woman’s life as she lived it – is quite a legacy.
The publisher of “At Home on the Range” has provided The Buffalo News Book Club with some copies of the book to be given away to a few lucky readers.
To be considered for a volume, email the Book Club at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or you can write to us at The Buffalo News Book Club, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.
When you write, tell us why you’d like to be considered for a copy of the Potter book.