Written by Danielle Oteri
Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert is generous to her audience. She treats her fans like friends and engages with them daily on Facebook. She has even made it ok to stalk her (sort of) by visiting Two Buttons, her enormous warehouse and trove of Indonesian art, jewelry and furniture in Frenchtown, New Jersey, as I did last month. (Despite the fact that the friendly store staff was pouring complimentary glasses of Chilean wine, my husband’s eyes glazed over within minutes. After smacking his head on an enormous hanging candle votive, he made the chivalrous choice to go wait in the car.)
Among the lawn Buddhas, gemstones, and exotic miscellanea, I was drawn to a simple blue and white clothbound cookbook titled At Home on the Range. Presented by Gilbert and published by McSweeney’s, it is a re-issue of a book written by Gilbert’s great-grandmother, Margaret Yardley Potter.
In the introduction, Gilbert explains how she was tangentially aware of the book written by her Gima, as she calls Potter, but had never read it until she was unpacking boxes of books in her new home. Amazed by the discovery, she describes how she read it in one stretch: “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!”
All of those things are there and yet it would still be easy to regard At Home on the Range simply as an artifact of its time—a relic from an era of cooking dominated by sliced ham, aspic, and chicken salad—if Potter’s voice didn’t so eerily remind you of the same woman who millions of women adopted as their new imaginary best friend after reading Eat, Pray, Love. If Gilbert had written a cookbook in 1947, I don’t doubt she would invite us to knead dough by saying, as Potter did, “Is your cigarette finished? Let’s go. This is fun.”
Stories flow into recipes and flow back into stories that become instructions for good living. An entire chapter is devoted to what to cook for weekend guests when feeling under the weather. Another chapter dedicated solely to eggs is rooted in my own grandmother’s philosophy that you’ll never starve as long as there’s an egg in the house.
Potter was a skilled cook who mastered everything from eels, calf brains in black butter, breads, and a “dependable hollandaise sauce.” She was ahead of her time in her dislike of canned vegetables and processed foods, even as they were first coming into a fashion as a major timesaving innovation.
Like Gilbert, she was the rogue of her family. Not the “pretty one,” she was “the one who could cook,” strikingly open-minded and willing to follow her curiosity even when it betrayed her Edwardian upbringing. Potter wholly embraced ethnic foods, which may not seem like a very big deal today, but for a good WASP Main Line family, shopping at a small family-run Italian grocery was an act of mutiny:
“Once, after my purchases had been tied in the usual knobby newspaper bundle, she darted into her kitchen and reappeared with a piece of warm, brownish red pastry on a bright plate. ‘Eata,’ she beamed. ‘Good for you and dat new bambino.’ The first mouthful left dull, run-of-the-mill food without appeal forever, and I learned then never to scorn an odd-appearing dish. What I had been tempted with was ITALIAN TOMATO PIE, or PIZZA and when I acquired the recipe we ate it frequently to increasing parental disapproval.”
Between the lines, you can hear Potter’s resolve to see the humor in life. Gilbert’s introduction tells us that that Gima’s life wasn’t terribly easy. Born into a wealthy Philadelphia family, she endured a difficult marriage, great financial losses, and bouts of alcoholism that landed her in psychiatric hospitals. She seems to have survived it all by sheer grace, wit, and clarity of expression.
If you are inclined to believe in divine purpose (as I do), it seems there is a generational calling among the women of this family to share their lives on paper as a means of connecting deeply to others. Though At Home on the Range never achieved the thunderous success of Eat, Pray, Love, the approach of each book is the same: a deeply personal conversation, spoken right into the ear of the reader from the heart of the author who is making no apologies for her circumstances, struggles, or accomplishments.
Potter’s introduction ends with a piece of advice as enjoyable as her sour milk muffins, a long-standing family favorite that Gilbert pulls out of the digressive narrative to more clearly define at the end of the book.
“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.”
Sour Milk Muffins
adapted from At Home on the Range, by Margaret Yardley Potter and Elizabeth Gilbert
Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Makes 12 muffins
[Editor’s Note: While you can go the Gima route of leaving your milk out on the counter overnight to sour, or add a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar to regular milk to sour it, I prefer to use buttermilk. Its acidity, paired with the leavening properties of baking soda, is the key to a good rise on these muffins. Beaten egg white adds even more height and a light crumb.]
- 1 1/2 cups (5 3/8 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 large egg, yolk and white separated
- 1 1/2 cups buttermilk (or sour milk as noted above)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter, organic vegetable oil, or extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 400˚F and generously grease a standard 12-cup muffin pan.
Whisk the flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda together in a medium bowl.
Whisk the egg yolk, buttermilk, and butter or oil together in a large bowl.
Beat the egg white until soft peaks form.
Stir the flour into the egg and buttermilk mixture, then gently fold the beaten egg white into the batter.
Divide the batter between the muffin pan wells and bake for 15-20 minutes, until the muffins are domed and tinged golden brown.
Remove from the oven and cool in the pan for 10 minutes before serving.
Danielle Oteri is the founder of Feast on History, which offers walks, classes, tastings and dinner parties that bring culinary history to life. A tireless sleuth of everything tasty, Danielle writes about subjects as diverse as saints, butchers, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. She contributes stories about culinary history and Italo-centric recipes.