April 6, 2012


If the memory of our personal histories fail in the minds of others, sometimes our writings live on — if only at the bottom of an attic trunk.  That’s what Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” discovered when she came across a book of recipes written by her great, great grandmother, Margaret Yardley Potter, while combing through memorabilia in the family home.

Gima, that distant relative, was an alcoholic but had a flair for cooking to rival that of Julia Child’s. At least that was Gilbert’s opinion as she sat thumbing through her relative’s book. Between the pages the novelist found adventuresome concoctions for calves’ headcheese, tripe and cockscombs, real ones collected from local poultry farmers.

If the novelty of these offerings wasn’t intriguing enough, the accompanying narrative was, providing insights and humor about daily life as it was lived in the 1950s. That was about the time housewives stopped cooking from scratch and became enamored of processed foods  — powered mashed-potatoes, frozen peas and biscuits from a box. But times have changed again and nostalgia is all the rage. 

At least that’s Gilbert’s theory and to test it, she’s reprinting her great, great grandmother’s cookbook for a  new generation, complete with its homey recipes and common sense: 

          “…there is no substitute for either good food or a comfortable bed.”  (“Good Reads,” Elizabeth Gilbert, “Good Housekeeping” April, 2012, excerpted from the new edition of “At Home on the Range” by Margaret Yardley Potter.)

I’m guessing Gilbert is right about the public’s hunger for nostalgia. The recipe for cock’s combs may have passed its “sell by date” but the need to connect with our past never goes out of style. We’re comforted to find continuity in an ever-changing world.

Gilbert’s experience makes me wonder if it is time for me to make a trip to the attic. Maybe I’ll get lucky and find a trove of forgotten wisdom, which paper and ink have preserved.