How many of us mums have found the time while giving birth to discuss cooking with the midwife or nurse - let alone extract a recipe from her, even one for pickles! But that's just part of the varied life resume of a truly remarkable woman, Margaret Yardley Potter.
Along with her magpie desire to collect recipes, anywhere and everywhere, Margaret had a passion for food and eating well that we'd now recognise as very modern and "foodie" - so much so that her book first published in 1947 suffered from being decades ahead of its time. For instance, she describes discovering as a young mother with a second child due on her second wedding anniversary - the hushed disapproval echoes down the years - the joys of Italian Tomato Pie. She'd discovered pizza! Reading through her detailed recipe now (given to her by the signora at her neighbourhood Italian grocery store who recommended it as perfect pregnancy food), it sounds a classic pizza. Yet while she with her adventurous palate couldn't get enough, her already disapproving parents just huffed and puffed all the more.
Thankfully, this free spirit has found another family member who's become her champion, her great granddaughter Elizabeth Gilbert. And if her name sounds familiar, she is the author of the mega bestseller Eat, Pray, Love.
In her Foreword to this new edition, Elizabeth tells of her own excitement in discovering a copy of the book at the bottom of a box while unpacking after moving to her new home. As she says, "I cracked it open and read it in one rapt sitting." The insight, humour and cosmopolitan sophistication belied the bespectacled, white haired, pearl earringed image that graced its jacket. Her great grandmother doesn't seem to have given a thought to any PR, it just wasn't in her DNA.
Just like Elizabeth, I warmed to this individualistic, spirited woman who loved nothing more than being a warm and hospitable hostess opening her home and generally meagre "pocketbook" to all and sundry. Her passion was good natural food and she sought it out in farmer's markets in the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside, in all sorts of ethnic delights (Italian, Jewish, German and French recipes all figure prominently) and her determination to avoid short cuts and compromises of any sort in the kitchen. She firmly admonishes that any new recipe must be followed religiously the first time to avoid disasters and a "disappointed husband", but next time give full rein to your imagination. She was a great cook with so much to offer anyone today who takes their food seriously. Or not so seriously at party time!
Time and again in reading At Home on the Range I was taken back to my own childhood and memories of learning from my mother how to make a good white sauce or gravy (Margaret would have approved!) or breathing in the scent of fresh new peas as I peeled the pods to help out with dinner. Along with licking the cake bowl, it was a delicious pleasure of another age.
As many of us seek new ways with some traditional foods that are suddenly back in vogue - think Pea and Ham Soup or Cauliflower Cheese or homemade icecream - Margaret Yardley Potter has come into her own. I just feel a little sad that such a lovely woman with so many gifts and so much love for others didn't receive the recognition she deserved in her lifetime. Perhaps that's true of many women of her era.
In deference to her - and because it's a great little book crammed full of dishes I want to make - At Home on the Range is already in place on my kitchen shelf.
Margaret Evans has a background in teaching, journalism and publishing. She is the editor of NOVA Holistic Journal.