When Elizabeth Gilbert stumbled upon a long-lost copy of her great-grandmother’s 1947 cooking and entertainment guide, At Home On the Range, the last thing she expected to find was a proto-foodie who championed farmers’ markets, ethnic food, and daring recipes like Brains with Black Butter, Chicken Livers for Six, and cockscombs. Recognizing that the world was finally ready for Margaret Yardley Potter’s style of epicurean adventure, Gilbert teamed up with McSweeney's to produce a handsome new edition, with proceeds benefitting the publisher’s literary nonprofit 826 National and their scholarship program ScholarMatch.
How much did you know about this book before re-discovering your old copy?
I knew about it peripherally my whole life. My mother did exactly the right thing: she gave it to me on my wedding day, of my first marriage, when I was 24 and irresponsible and just callow enough to put it in a box and ignore it. And I didn’t find that book again until last spring—I’m now 43. I’m embarrassed to say I dismissed it, “I’m sure there’s a lot of Jell-o and meatloaf in there.” I didn’t think it would be the literary and culinary feast that it turned out to be.
How did you go about getting it re-published?
It was a case of perfect timing—just a couple weeks earlier, Dave Eggers had approached me to ask if I wanted to put together an anthology for ScholarMatch, a collection of short stories I like, and I could write a foreword. Then I found this book! And I sent him an e-mail about it, I have something so much better than reading about why I like Chekov so much—I have this treasure.
And it’s like this weird case of stewardship, to bring this woman’s voice to a time in history when people would appreciate it. She was ahead of her time in 1947, writing about artisanal food and epicurean adventures when the country was going in the exact opposite direction, as processed food was coming into vogue.
How did At Home on the Range do when it was first published in 1947?
It had one edition, I don’t know what the original print run was, and obviously it was not a runaway bestseller. But it was published by a legitimate Philadelphia publishing house, and she did work as a food columnist so she did have people who were reading her. But this was a woman who struggled with alcoholism and financial problems her whole life, had a difficult marriage, so I’m not sure how able she was to self-promote, to get out there and make herself known.
You’re best known for your mega-bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, which focuses a good bit on food—would you say this kind of writing runs in the family?
My sister, Catherine Murdoch, is a really successful young adult novelist most known for Dairy Queen, though she’s written a lot of other stuff since then. On my dad’s side of the family, everyone’s just very comfortable on the page—like, for a lot of people writing is this mysterious address you can never find, you can drive around the neighborhood forever and never find it. We’re all born there. We’re just very comfortable on the page. And I was amazed reading the book at how familiar the voice sounded to me. Parts sound like my sister, parts sound like me, parts sound like my dad. It made me think maybe there is such thing as a family voice.
What kind of audience do you expect it to reach?
I have a motto for it already: don’t make the same mistake your grandmother made, buy this book! She’s really finding her audience now, Alice Waters blurbed it, it’s a book with literary interest as well as culinary, even the recipes—each is told with a little narrative, and they’re all very charming and funny and witty and urbane. It has a real Dorothy Parker-ish feel to it, and also it’s totally of the Brooklyn hipster foodie stuff going on right now. Should be enough to satisfy literary and culinary snobs both!
And hopefully we can send a whole bunch of kids to college with it. It would be great karmically: my great-grandmother’s life was one of constrained opportunity, there was so much she didn’t get to do, to be a help for others 65 years after the original publication just seems wonderful and magical.