Elizabeth Gilbert falls in love with great-grandmother's rich cooking legacy

Elizabeth Gilbert whips up one of her great-grandmother's recipes in her Frenchtown, N.J., kitchen. Gilbert found the book in an unpacked box. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Elizabeth Gilbert whips up one of her great-grandmother's recipes in her Frenchtown, N.J., kitchen. Gilbert found the book in an unpacked box. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 18, 2012

FRENCHTOWN, N.J. — Elizabeth Gilbert is standing at her stove, stirring flour into melted butter, attempting a simple white sauce for the base of an oyster bisque. As she slowly adds the milk, just as directed in the recipe, the sauce clumps.

“I don’t know about this, I’ve never made a white sauce before,” she says, stirring furiously to smooth out the lumps.

The best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love is the first to admit her greatest talent is not in the kitchen. But she has tied on an apron to promote the work of another writer in the family: her great-grandmother from Philadelphia, Margaret Yardley Potter, who, by all accounts, was a marvelous cook.

Gilbert came upon her great-grandmother’s cookbook, filled with recipes from a lifetime of cooking and entertaining from the 1920s through World War II, while unpacking boxes. And she was so blown away at what she found between the covers — “The humor! The insight! The sophistication!” — she decided she had to share it with the world.

This weekend, the just-released cookbook, At Home on the Range, with an introduction by Gilbert, is being celebrated in historic Frenchtown (about 10 miles north of Lambertville, along the Delaware River) with the restaurants and shops cooking dishes from the book. Gilbert, who lives in a lovely yellow Victorian there, will be signing copies of the book from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Two Buttons, the import shop she runs with her husband.

Gilbert had heard stories her whole life about the legendary dinners and holidays hosted by “Gima,” as everyone called her great-grandmother. “Everyone loved Gima, and wanted to be around her,” she says. “I wish I could have met her just once.” Gilbert knew of the cookbook, as many of its recipes were served at family meals (“Not the brains with black butter, but many of them”). But she had never opened the book, expecting outdated recipes from the cooking columns her great grandmother wrote for the Wilmington (Del.) Star.

What she found was not just recipes, but stories, the wonderful stories around the meals Margaret Potter cooked for family and friends throughout her life. And what emerges from the pages is a portrait of the charming, witty, and irrepressible hostess, Gima, probably at her stove, dispensing advice with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other, telling her readers just how simple it is to make lamb stew for six. “Much more Dorothy Parker than Betty Crocker,” Gilbert says.

Raised in wealth and refinement in Chestnut Hill in the late 19th century with Irish servants and the Social Register, a young Gima took up cooking, which was quite unusual for women of her class, who largely left that to the kitchen help. But that hobby became the center of her life, as she found herself in increasingly reduced circumstances after marrying a lawyer who, as Gilbert says, “never developed a taste for work.”

And so we read about: the stewed chicken with rice that Gima, as a new bride, prepares for the expanding list of bachelors her husband brings home for dinner one night (she adds another cup of rice after each phone call and ends up with an overflowing dishpan of rice when the guests arrive); the open houses she hosts at her Shore home on Sundays (she sent out postcards with an open invitation: “Clam chowder, Beer, Sandwiches and Swimming every Sunday after Twelve. Guests, please bring your own beach towels”); and a tear-jerking recipe if ever there was one for her son’s favorite meal, the pot roast she makes at his request for his homecomings, first from boarding school, then college, then from the war.

We also learn that Gima is an incredibly adventurous cook, especially for that time period, seeking new flavors and dishes wherever she could find them, learning to make “tomato pastry” (or pizza) from the mamas at the Italian Market; re-creating a rabbit fricassee after a trip to Pennsylvania Dutch country; even roasting the mussels her two children found at the Jersey Shore — on a makeshift grill on the beach.

Gilbert clearly fell in love with Gima’s writing and food history, but not so much the actual recipes. “I had this idea that the food wouldn’t work,” she said, fearing the recipes were ordinary and outdated.

Gilbert’s kitchen, warm and inviting, completely without pretense, reflects her personality, perhaps something she inherited from Gima. But it’s clearly a cook’s kitchen, with a wall of spices, knives on a magnetic strip, pots hanging from a rack around the cooking island, not to mention the gorgeous marble countertops for prep.

“The cooking, I did not inherit,” she says. “José is the cook in the family.” That would be her husband, José Nunes, the Bolivian she met on her world travels for Eat, Pray, Love and then married, their love story chronicled in a second memoir, Committed. “José says, ‘A woman’s place is in the kitchen, with a glass of wine, watching him cook.’” (We so understand why she broke her vow to never remarry!)

After chopping celery for another recipe, celery au gratin, Gilbert returns to that white sauce, now in a double boiler, as Gima instructed, to finish cooking. And lo and behold, it’s smooth and thick and creamy. “Look how nicely this is coming together!” Gilbert says. “I can just hear Gima up in heaven looking down, saying, ‘What? Really? You think I don’t know how to make a white sauce?’ ”

What the cookbook doesn’t say, but Gilbert does, is that Gima was an alcoholic, who died of the disease in 1955. She longed to travel, even planned to leave her husband and take her daughter to Paris, but for reasons unexplained, stayed in an unhappy marriage, cooking and entertaining for the endless parade of friends her husband brought home, never complaining, but often scrambling to pay the bills.

But cooking was not Gima’s only skill: “When times got rough, she would put on her best jewelry that hadn’t been hocked, and her best dress (she always had an aristocratic air), and she would disappear for a few days. She would go to the private clubs in Philadelphia and she would wipe up at the medium-stakes bridge tables. She was a really good card player. Then she would come home and pay the rent or pay the tuition at Springside.”

And her adventurous streak did not stop at cooking. Once, after inheriting “a pile of money,” she took her best friend to Paris for three months. “They stayed at the St. Georges, bought clothes and ate at the best restaurants and came home dead broke,” Gilbert says. “She had little kids at the time!” Two weeks later the stock market crashed and everyone was broke. According to family history, Gima said: “They all lost their money. I spent mine.”

Pretty much her whole life, Gima followed the philosophy “Live for the moment,” Gilbert says. “I’m very aware of having access to a life that Gima would have loved to have had,” says Gilbert. “That is why I feel such a strong sense of stewardship for this book.”

Gilbert and her husband, well, mostly her husband, have been cooking their way through the recipes. “We made the chicken cacciatore … we thought it would be too dry, or that it would need olives. But it was so bloody good. It tasted like a recipe from somebody who had made it hundreds of times, which, of course, she had.” They also made the vegetable soup from a recipe Gima learned from her Irish maid: “Jose said it tasted like his grandmother’s cooking. There is no higher compliment.”

After a final stir, Gilbert brings a spoon to her mouth, to taste the now-finished oyster bisque. “Well, let’s see …” she says, blowing gently to cool it.

“Wow! You have to taste this. It is so good. I really didn’t see that coming.”

And it is good: briny, buttery, and exceptionally tasty.

“That is sort of what all her recipes are like,” Gilbert says. “They sound ho-hum and then you taste them and you are blown away. … I just love that I have to keep learning to trust her.”

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