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In rediscovered treasure, a woman ahead of her time

Occasionally in reading, one comes across a book that seems so wholecloth so complete, so utterly of its time and place -- that it causes amazement.

How, the reader thinks, can I not have known about this book before?

"Anne of Green Gables" was an early example of this kind of book, for this reviewer. Later in life, the Betsy-Tacy stories -- "Betsy In Spite of Herself," for example -- performed the same kind of magic. So do the novels of Nancy Mitford, in an entirely different sort of way.

Now comes a volume that contains the essence of this sort of unfamiliar familiarity, though, unlike the aforementioned books aimed at women readers, it is not fiction.

"At Home on the Range" is, in fact, a cookbook.

But it is so much, much more than a cookbook. It is a memoir of one woman's life, her marriage, and her full and happy years taking care of a family. It is also the encapsulation of the spirit of this particular woman -- Margaret Yardley Potter of Philadelphia, who died in 1955 -- on the page, in such full-flowered glory that she seems by the close of the volume to be someone that we know intimately. (A treasured older aunt, perhaps. Or the next-door neighbor that sends you homemade jam at Christmas.)

Potter's book was published in 1947, but had gone out of print over the years.

In a charming introduction, writer Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of "Eat, Pray, Love" and other books, tells of stumbling across an old copy of the long-forgotten book written by her great-grandmother while packing up boxes and moving to a new house.

Gilbert, a best-selling author, writes in the opening portion of this new edition of the book that she had never before taken the time to read her great-grandmother's take on cooking and housekeeping. Great-grandmother Potter, known as "Gima" in her family, was for many years a cooking columnist for the Wilmington Star newspaper, and "died of alcoholism long before I was born," as Gilbert explains.

In reading the book, in her early 40s, Gilbert realized how unique a voice Potter possessed.

"I cracked it open and read it in one rapt sitting," Gilbert confesses here. "Gima had come to join us, and she was wonderful, and I was in love."

Such buildup would be utterly disappointing if Potter's book of home-keeping did not deliver the goods.

But it does, and so delightfully that the reader finds herself marking pages to come back to and read over again. How often does that happen with a cookbook or cleaning how-to?

Try this passage, from the opening paragraph of Potter's chapter on how eggs can be deployed as a dish in any emergency:

"Our favorite overnight tourist camp in New England has a sign in the dining room that bears the mystic message 'Eggs Anyways,' but it was Mary MacHugh, bless her Scotch heart, who really taught me that first principle of the emergency shelf. By then the two children were grown up, I had acquired a job, and Mary took us and what my conservative brother-in-law called our 'country club' -- with reason, I am afraid -- under her wing for two blissful years. Then 'Me laigs is givin' out, mum,' -- small wonder, too, and 'as good cooks go, she went.'"

Or this, from her advice on kitchen decor:

"A small blackboard and its chalk may not be a decoration, but it's a fine useful thing on the kitchen wall. While mine frequently carries such messages as 'Where did you put the bottle opener, you bum?' amidst reminders of necessary tomatoes or eggs, it saves many a phone call or trip to the store for otherwise forgotten articles."

Potter sounds in these passages like precisely the woman she was: the daughter of a well-to-do Main Line family who gradually grew poorer over the years, and whose marriage, while sometimes brilliantly happy, did not always result in worldly ease or comfort. Her sections on how to stretch food to fit a crowd on a tight budget are touching and poignant, as well as humorous. (Potter's marriage, Gilbert writes in her introduction, was not always smooth and trouble-free, and at one point the couple nearly divorced.)

Potter comes off as the woman you want next to you at the stove as you learn to make stock or on the front porch as you try churning home-made ice cream. (Which she heartily endorses as one of the foods that makes America great.)

She is also, in a refreshing way, a woman far ahead of her time.

We may tell ourselves that locavore movements -- scouring the local landscape for produce, meats and other delicacies with which to adorn the home table -- are something new and savvy that we have invented, but Potter knew better.

She was doing this sort of thing in the 1920s and 1930s, with much success, despite the raised eyebrows she sometimes encountered along the way. Such a practice was known in her day as common sense and creativity, with very little fuss about it.

"No fuss," in fact, is a fitting epitaph for Potter, and for this book.

If you love cooking and home care, or just good stories about real people, you owe it to yourself to experience "At Home on the Range."

Trust me: you'll be folding over pages to come back to, yourself.

Charity Vogel is a News reporter finishing a book on the Angola Horror train wreck of 1867 for Cornell University Press.

***

At Home on the Range

By Margaret Yardley Potter (presented by her great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Gilbert)

McSweeney's

256 pages, $24