Recipes and Other Legacies – A Three-Book Giveaway for You!
It is Mrs Beeton who gets all the credit, rightly so, for being the first person to write a recipe book in the style we are now all so familiar with. It was she who introduced the words, ‘Ingredients’ and ‘Method’ into our lexicon and who set out a step by step guide, written in easy to understand language for each recipe.
Before her Book of Household Management it was not unusual for recipes to be called ‘receipts’, with a list of ingredients, roughly in the order they would be added to the mix, written down with a quick guide as to their use. “Lemon peel, strewn into mixture across sugar and eggs, three” is an approximation. It was not unlike reading a chemistry formula in iambic pentameter.
Each household cook, assuming they could write at all, would have their own hand bound book of recipes. It was these precious writings that would inform their every meal, carefully handed down, usually to their oldest daughter. It was not unusual – it still isn’t – for cooks to withhold the secret to their most treasured meals, taking to the grave their recipe for peerless chocolate cake or their world-class lemon meringue pie.
We are so used to a standardised recipe book format that it always comes as a surprise to read the works of cooks who regularly recorded their efforts from a time when there was no call to be so exact. When I come across a book like this, often in dusty second-hand bookshops – I am addicted to second-hand bookshops – I then ask myself whether I should keep it in the kitchen or on the bedside table.
At Home on the Range by Margaret Yardley Potter is one such book.
Known to all who loved her as Gima, Yardley Potter grew up in a wealthy family in turn-of-the-century east coast America and, through illness, a healthy pursuit of partying and a feckless spendthrift husband, steadily reduced her circumstances year by year until her alcoholism-related death in 1955.
And if we left it at that you would have no clue to the generous, joyous and at times quite cavalier way with which she tackled life, hardship and penury, all of which is contained in her book.
Densely written over more than 200 pages, I found myself asking again and again whether it was an autobiography with recipes, or a recipe book with a great story arc woven through it. The two pre-requisites for being a good cook, she advises us, is “a hearty appetite and a sense of humour” and with every sentence she shows she has both in boundless quantities. First published in 1947 while Julia Child was just embarking on her culinary education in Paris, Gima was telling everyone in plain-food post-war US to reconsider their approach to mussels, red wine gravy, omelette au fines herbes, brandied peaches, tomato consommé and not one but three variations on a coffee cake.
But it is her humour that speaks so evocatively through the pages. She was a party gal and she clearly had a deliciously dry wit. During a lengthy chapter on bread making, she advises the reader to
‘Now relax. Sit down, light a cigarette, write a letter or make your own plans for the next 15 minutes while the dough ‘tightens up’ as we bakers say. I generally improve this shining quarter hour by washing the mixing bowl, and like the fisherman’s suspenders in Kipling’s “How the Whale Got His Throat,” which you are implored to remember, you’ll see why later …’
See what I mean? There’s not one dryly worded method in this book. Instead, this book is best read in bed (Gima would approve I’m sure) while you follow her on a journey through making party plans (quite rightly Gima places pre-eminent importance on the correct way to mix a Manhattan), visiting sick friends in hospital (a woman after my own heart, I can never visit friends without taking in food), or suitable picnic or beach fare. Along the way you realise that despite the witty prose and densely written and at times hard to follow recipes, this woman had a damned hard life, moving from place to place often one step away from the bailiffs, and with frequent periods of hospitalisation either for mental illness or alcoholism. She cannily re-purposed and made the best of hand-me down furniture and household items, and always had the last word in kitchen thrift as a brilliantly written chapter on making a meal when friends come round and you have no food to feed them wittily attests.
And yet she was generous. She was funny, had a stream of visitors and friends to her door, never shirked hard work and made the best of every day she had. Her dinner parties, which were more party than dinner, were legendary. Fifty years after she has passed, her great-granddaughter Elizabeth Gilbert (she of Eat, Pray, Love fame) describes how much Gima is still missed by all who knew her. Her legacy includes many recipes handed down across four generations of family that followed. You can’t help wondering, as Gilbert does, what could have happened in the following ten years had Gima lived on for it was in the 1960s that Julia Child dragged the US into a burgeoning love affair with fine food utilising as she did the new medium of TV.
Gima would have been a natural.
Elizabeth Gilbert clearly thought so as well. The great-granddaughter who never knew Gima, she fell in love with her through her writing and it’s not hard to understand why. There are more than 200 recipes throughout the book but it is hard to extract them, so joyously interwoven with her story as they are. Gima only ever published this one book, never travelled to Paris as she longed to do, never got the breaks that other food authors got, but this book deserves reprinting, if nothing else for the autobiography that is attached. Thank goodness it has been re-purposed and published again. Gima would have so approved.
Just make sure you take it into your kitchen after you have read it from cover to cover. Ultimately, that’s where it should reside.
At Home On The Range by Margaret Yardley Potter & Elizabeth Gilbert, Bloomsbury, hardcover, 256 pages is now available in all good bookstores, RRP $35.00
I have a lovely giveaway of three books for one lucky reader, of At Home on the Range by Margaret Yardley Potter and Eat, Pray Love and Committed, both by Elizabeth Gilbert, courtesy of Bloomsbury.
To be in the draw, please share with us your most treasured meal that has been handed down through your family. You don’t have to write the recipe, especially if it’s a family secret, but you know we’ll all love you if you do.
Winner will be drawn by random generated computer selector thingy. Draw closes 7pm EST Friday 8th June 2012.