Literary Eats: At Home on the Range

While unpacking boxes of old family books recently, author Elizabeth Gilbert rediscovered a dusty, yellowed hardcover called At Home on the Range, originally written by her great-grandmother, Margaret Yardley Potter. Having only been peripherally aware of the volume, Gilbert dug in with some curiosity, and soon found that she had stumbled upon a book far ahead of its time. Part scholar and part crusader for a more open food conversation, Potter espoused the importance of farmer’s markets and ethnic food (Italian, Jewish, and German), derided preservatives and culinary shortcuts, and generally celebrated a devotion to epicurean adventures. Reading this practical and humorous cookbook, it’s not hard to see that Gilbert inherited her great-grandmother’s love of food and her warm, infectious prose. The excerpt below, from the chapter entitled "Egg Yourself on in Emergencies," is, in my opinion, one of the most perfectly perfect things written. Ever.

The second inexpensive assistant to have in your icebox for quick meals is cold boiled potatoes, dull as it sounds, but their variations are almost as endless as those of eggs.

Hashed browns are my first thought, probably because I spent most of my young summer days on the New Jersey coast and a plate of crusty potatoes, soft inside and turned omelet-fashion from the sizzling pan always brings back memories of numerous fishing picnics and I can almost smell the driftwood smoke and see the sun setting over the water. The party generally consisted of three or four young sportsmen and the fortunate (so we thought) girls of their choice, and we started early and eagerly planning and providing food for our Izaak Waltons.

First, we’d have two stuffed eggs apiece, made as I have told you, each half carefully clapped onto its mate and the whole wrapped in wax paper. Then a quart jar or so of whole peeled ripe tomatoes and a smaller one of sharp French dressing, thick with slices of onion and chopped celery, and perhaps a washed, chilly head of lettuce, well wrapped. One of the embryo housewives would produce a cake or a pie, for in those days girls thought their swains were impressed by their culinary skill, and with a great paper bag of cold boiled white potatoes and a pound or two of sliced bacon we were ready to go, accompanied by rattling frying pans, plates, cups, cutlery and a coffee pot.

A trip by canoe or sailboat to the beach, and the boys busied themselves building a fire and then vanished with their fishing rods while we got ready for their return in what we felt was a truly domestic fashion. Coffee and water were measured into the big pot and set aside. The tomatoes and dressing were put in a shady, cool place, bread was sliced and buttered, and all hands began peeling and dicing the potatoes. At dusk, just before we expected our fishermen back, we started all the bacon frying and then put the brown slices to drain on a bit of paper. Some of the grease was saved for the fish that seemingly never failed to appear with the boys and into about ½ inch of the grease that was left went the diced potatoes and a few pieces of chopped onion and lots of salt and pepper. The whole mass was well pressed down into the hot pan and then moved to a “medium” corner of the fire, there to remain for about half an hour.

When the fishing had been unusually good and we needed no extra meat, the bacon was broken up in the potatoes just before we served them, otherwise it went in between our buttered slices of bread. How good the ice-cold tomatoes with their spicy dressing tasted with the broiled fresh fish we basted with the bacon drippings, and how we argued over who should get the last crumb of brown potato before the pan was taken to the edge of the beach for its scrub with sand and sea water! Then big cups of strong black coffee and huge pieces of cake or pie and, while the sun set, someone stirred up the fire and a young voice started 'Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee' or maybe a newer song like 'By the Beautiful Sea.' Is it any wonder I like hashed brown potatoes?

But even without my memories, try them made just the same way on a prosaic stove. Let the boiled potatoes be cold and dry and have the bacon grease and skillet hot. For home consumption a few chopped onion tops or chives are better than the lustier sliced onion, and a dusting of chopped parsley makes them more delicate. The finished product, with some of our faithful poached eggs resting on top and the bacon curled about the edge, is a one-dish luncheon that any man, particularly, will relish. Sliced tomatoes in sharp dressing just like that made at the picnic, hot coffee, gingerbread from a good package mix, topped with marshmallows when it’s half baked, fruit—and how long has it taken you? Not more than half an hour, including setting the table.

“At Home on the Range” by Margaret Yardley Potter. McSweeney's, March 2012