1. The Vanishing.
An obscure food columnist from Philadelphia once published a cookbook that instantly vanished for sixty-five years. Then her granddaughter found it in the bottom of a box and, she writes, fell in love with “The humor! The insight! The sophistication!” (Gilbert 10-11)
We should forgive the granddaughter for taking the style of Queen Victoria! too much to heart, for the book in question justifies her enthusiasm. Its author is indeed humorous, insightful and sophisticated, but playful is the better word.
Anyone who decided in 1947 to choose an offstage sex scene to introduce her cookbook wins our approval. Even better, the autoerotic episode involves a vibrator. Its consequences on the evening in question led to a culinary romp that led to “shooting craps on the floor” and culminates with a game of hallway softball using the toilet plunger for a bat. Oceans of alcohol fueled the improvised proceedings, another plus. (Potter 27-28)
The demise of this cookbook seems inexplicable: Were we really so dull during the atomic age? Perhaps we were. The book appeared at the same time as the mania for kitchen shortcuts embodied by TV dinners along with all manner of frozen, canned and fake convenience foods. Even Tang had its moment.
Then again the problem may lie with Philadelphia through no fault of its own. For most of the twentieth century and even now, Philadelphia cookbook authors huddle like the Lost Battalion in a no man’s land.
Yankees still swear by Fanny Farmer and Americans everywhere worship Julia Child, the chatelaine of Cambridge. Food columnists in Britain canonize Eliza Acton, and if they disdain Mrs. Beeton the public adores her. So the culinary past, at least when it comes to England and New England, is far from dead and, to bowdlerize the great American novelist, not even in the past.
That is not true of nineteenth and twentieth century Philadelphia. Eliza Leslie and Sarah Rorer were icons in their day: Who has heard of either? It may not be pushing things too far to refract the status of Philadelphia cookbooks more generally through the lens of those years that our sexy subject languished in the wilderness.
2. The resurrection.
Fortunately for us, the granddaughter in question has written a bestseller in Eat, Pray, Love, so Elizabeth Gilbert wields a big club and has convinced McSweeney’s to publish the forgotten heirloom. Dave Eggers’ edgy imprint from San Francisco is the fitting font for its revival.
3. A sex toy, unintended candlelight and a modern midnight conversation.
Enough of the tease and on to the book, At Home on the Range by Margaret Yardley Potter. That initial sex scene is demure enough, like the photographs in the book of its author. Her sister arrives vowing to help prepare “a dinner that was to honor a very important and dignified guest” in the absence of ill-disposed kitchen staff. Instead she retires to a bedroom with her bulky buzzer and blows all the circuitry in the house. (Potter 25, 27)
The rest of the evening makes a certain unelectric history. The lights are out, the butler is “on his half-yearly binge,” the cook too is gone and the guests pitch in. Not least the dignitary, who pronounces himself the new butler in time to serve dessert.
The lineman arrives before midnight to restore power but accepts a restorative instead. Following softball, the dignitary’s dignity and Mrs. Potter’s “failure as a formal hostess were both completely forgotten.” It is a classic epiphany. She “realized that elaborate entertaining with inadequate help was neither convincing nor worth the nerve-shattering effort.” (Potter 28)
A Modern Midnight Conversation: No power required.
4. Hard times.
And a good thing too. Margaret Yardley may have been “born rich,… late nineteenth-century Main Line Philadelphia rich,” but the fates interceded in the form of a charismatic lawyer “who never developed a taste for work.” She abetted her husband Sheldon in the pursuit of downward mobility “with a Jazz Age sensibility that can best be summed up in one gleeful, reckless, consequence-be-damned word: Enjoy!” (Gilbert 11-12)
If Gilbert cannot shake her addiction to italics she does capture the personalities of this unconventional pair and catch the jaunty tone of At Home on the Range. Potter’s voice is all the more remarkable because her life was so hard. It was not just debt and periodic poverty that scarred her, but her husband’s infidelity, his “temper and narcissism” and her own intractable addiction to alcohol, a condition so extreme that it “would periodically land her in psychiatric clinics and grim hospital wards.” (Gilbert 13) It also would kill her at the age of sixty-two.
5. Good times and bad.
When she was not draining one, however, this was a woman who found the glass half full. No money? No problem. “Orange crates may substitute for chairs, a barrel doesn’t make a bad table, and conscienceless borrowing, as we all know to our sorrow, has too often produced an impressive library.” (Potter 211) She dabbled in painting and played swing piano, but for Mrs. Potter, like M.F.K Fisher and Elizabeth David before the stroke, sex and food were paramount.
Mrs. Potter liked to maintain that “I learned everything I know about sex from a folding chair” (What, no trapeze?), found the ice man sexy, mused that “[e]xcept under the heading of ‘entertainment,’ advice on beds isn’t appropriate in a cookbook” and, to keep things stimulating, advocated inviting guests “to Sunday breakfast en neglige.” (Allen; Potter 189, 211)
It follows that the only indispensible items for any household are a bed and stove. These altars sanction the worship of her twin trinities so everyone should purchase the best they can afford:
“Granted the three most important things in life, birth, marriage and death, take place in bed; three equally vital occurrences, breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily owe their success to the stove…. Don’t rush either purchase, for these important articles, like a husband, should last a lifetime if well selected.” (Potter 211)
But why stay with Potter? She did leave him for a time, and Gilbert maintains that Mrs. P nearly ran off to Paris where her cherished Uncle Charlie lived in happy exile, but she never did join him. Gilbert wonders why and finds it sad, but not the Editor. It would seem that Margaret loved Sheldon. A scoundrel he was, but he was her scoundrel and, contrary to Gilbert’s contention, not a hint of marital reproach tints At Home. Her references to him may be wry, but so is her voice writ large, and he made her laugh, not to mention quite obviously providing entertainment at the altar. To be fair, Gilbert, who admits that her great grandfather “awed and delighted” her, gets it right in italicizing her conviction that each reference is “credibly affectionate.” (Gilbert 18)
6. More likes… and some dislikes.
By now it should surprise nobody that Mrs. Potter’s recipes are as playful and wry as her stories. They are straightforward too, and sensible. Thus, “[t]he horseradish cream that is so necessary on boiled or roast beef is simply 2 cups of sour cream mixed with bottled horseradish to taste.” The recipe for marmalade, like most of her recipes, is longer, but still simple, clear and reassuring; “constant stirring and average intelligence is [sic] really all that is necessary.” (Potter 97, 134) Readers may note the British provenance of both preparations.
Remember to stir.
Necessity is in a way another theme, and the narrative format of her recipes gives Mrs. Potter ample opportunity to advance strong opinions and skewer pretension.
With money frequently short, Mrs. Potter could not afford the added expense of convenience foods or the exotica required for haut cuisine, even had she not been disinclined to indulge in them. Good food, however, was for her as necessary as oxygen or alcohol, and anyway a cheap calf’s head is more interesting than an expensive steak:
“A usually unheeded sense of thrift was the cause of my learning to prepare a calf’s head…. Altogether, a calf’s head is worth experimenting with and not only for economy. Imagination is the only limit to the ways of serving it, and once started you’ll not wonder at my reaction when, during meat rationing, I saw a Helen Hokinson type ordering the last one in the store for ‘cat food,’ and had to be forcibly restrained from murder.” (Potter 64, 66-67)
She is ‘cold to the possibilities of carrots’ so “just let’s say, ‘carrots can be cooked and eaten, but why?’” (Potter 92) Cocktails, however, are essential (no surprise) and it is essential to prepare them properly:
“Dashing members of the Tuesday luncheon and bridge club may relish a sweet weak cocktail with trimmings that resemble low tide at Coney Island but a true bon vivant prefers the bouquet of his liquor unspoiled.” (Potter 199)
Better the “dear old soul” who “sought to cheer the local ‘Ladies Aid’ on a chilly day by mixing old-fashioneds and serving them from a teapot. Some of the members are still a little hazy as to what went on at the meeting afterwards.” (Potter 200) This is the kind of improvisation, not to mention inebriation, that Mrs. Potter admires.
A vessel of cheer
She is Pottersville instead of Bedford Falls, a little more sinful and a lot more fun. Old Fashioneds are a good thing: Mrs. Potter recalls drinking them and stout at sea:
“Rhum Martinique was their foundation then, and the harassed bar steward of our crowded British freighter considered us real ‘quality’ because we ordered them only before dinner and stuck to a bottle of Guinness with lunch.” (Potter 200)
She considers Sherry or gin with bitters and a twist “English apertifs much superior to most of that island’s cooking” (Potter 200) but elsewhere she is not nearly so unkind and in fact a British sensibility informs a lot of what she does.
7. The strange case of the absent influence and a dissertation on tripe.
Conventional wisdom ascribes a German influence--those Pennsylvania Dutch--to Philadephia foodways but it leaves scant trace in the recipes of Mrs. Potter. She credits both “English and French cookbooks” with good judgment (“they should know”), but while Gilbert places her great grandmother’s culinary heaven in France, At Home hardly takes a Gallic turn. (Potter 69; Gilbert 19)
Mrs. Potter says she “fought a long but losing battle” against tripe, “and like many another of the defeated, now bless the victor.” She likes Tripe a la mode de Caen, but not as much as “typically British” broiled tripe. It can be superb “served with plain boiled potatoes--Oh, those English!--and creamed onions, and it is such a fine combination…. ” (Potter 68, 70)
Mrs. Potter includes four recipes along with extremely good instructions for the preparation that tripe requires before it may be cooked. Among other things, she notes that other cookbooks never pre-boil the tripe for a long enough time (true) and explains that you must “cover it with fresh water and rub it between your hands just as though scrubbing the bath towel it so much resembles. This is more fun than it sounds.” (Potter 69)
That kind of passage is what makes Mrs. Potter so good. The image is indelible, the description precise and the reference to fun is both encouraging and, well, fun. Elizabeth David was equally brisk but never exhibited such a sense of humor, wrote so well nor tried to help her reader so much. (see the notes)
8. English items.
Mrs. Potter’s reference to English cookbooks is not a bluff. Her good recipe for eels simmered in red wine and vinegar with cayenne “came from a very ancient English cookbook” that recommends serving the dish with “sippets of toste.” [sic] (Potter 68)
Explicit references to British foodways include finnan haddie, which “too rarely makes a morning appearance in this part of the English-speaking world;” ‘Irish’ shepherd’s pie; a veal and ham pie “from the chef of a small English liner, now sunk like so many of her gallant sisters;” and, “in honor of our British cousins,… beef and kidney pie.” (Potter 54, 56-57, 191-92)
In fact much of At Home on the Range is steeped in unpretentious and satisfying British foodways. Mrs. Potter reaches for anchovies whenever she can, likes to cook fiery devilled foods, mock turtle (from those wonderful calf’s heads), makes potted meat, sherry trifle with boiled custard, “English Plum Pudding” and even reconciles herself to barley water even though it was forced upon her as a child by an awful English governess.
She also wrecked Tennyson for Mrs. Potter until later life, and the story exemplifies her impatience with affectation. The favorite poem of the governess had been “Crossing the Bar” in which sailors rhapsodize the evening sky. This was unbearable to a little girl with a commonsense bent:
“Piffle! Turned loose every summer in small boats, we knew able seamen had no time to waste on scenery when over dangerous shoals, and we scorned the Victorian tearjerker and its landlubber author.” (Potter 198)
So the lady was a sailor too.
Margaret Yardley Potter’s younger sister was ‘the pretty one’ of the two, and acquaintances let them know it. Perhaps the opening scene of At Home on the Range represents a species of playful payback.
For much more on Elizabeth David, go bfia Number 4 from February 2010 at our archive.
Helen Hokinson was a cartoonist who depicted ridiculous socialites for The New Yorker. She died much too young in an airline crash during 1949.
Split calf’s (and lamb’s) heads are available at Seabra’s Supermarkets in northern New Jersey and southeastern Massachusetts and from other purveyors of ethnic foods. You can substitute the more manageably sized lamb’s head for most recipes using calf’s head.
The 2012 edition put together by Gilbert does not disclose the fact, but its original title was the longer and better At Home on the Range; or, How to Make Friends with Your Stove.
A selection of our interpretations of Mrs. Potter’s recipes appears in the practical.
Emma Allen, “Reincarnation,” The New Yorker (23 July 2012) 23
Elizabeth Gilbert, “Foreward,” in Margaret Yardley Potter, At Home on the Range (San Francisco 2012)
Margaret Yardley Potter, At Home on the Range (San Francisco 2012; orig. publ. 1947)