At Home on the Range

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The Philadelphia Story


Art by GOLD Collective (who also designed the cover of the book!)

There are many advantages to having chucked both your federal career and your PhD for the allure of self-employment, but as anyone who has embarked on this path knows, the main perk is the ability to undertake nearly all work-related activities in your underwear while eating off brand ice cream sandwiches, with only your own sense of shame and your cat’s palpable revulsion to goad you into putting on pants. 

Self-employment also means that when your aunt from Oregon whom you’ve had little contact with over the last thirty years asks you to join her on an At Home on the Range inspired genealogical expedition to Philadelphia, you can say yes without hesitation. It’s only after you’ve given an enthusiastic “yes” that you wonder what you’ve agreed to. That’s a lot of hours with an aunt you no longer know.

Were it not for Gima and my desire to piece together her life, I doubt I would have bothered with pants. But I’m nothing if not intrepid when it comes to a research junket, and Aunt Ann is a maven when it comes to things genealogical. As it turns out, she’s also a beast when it comes to digging up graves in abandoned cemeteries. 

I had envisioned a few days in Philadelphia, cruising around neatly manicured cemeteries and quaint suburbs, with most of my time spent pawing through paper records. Instead we arrived at the ruinous Mount Moriah cemetery in ruinous central Philly for my genealogical trial by fire. Finding the family plot involved GPS, an ATV, and a burly ginger packing heat in case she happened upon “dumpers.” After several hours of fruitless digging, almost entirely on Ann’s part, she was able to locate one of our relations, and some strangers who had decided our stretch of turf looked like a nice place to spend eternity. The entire process was made all the more tale worthy by our guide, who was convinced that every other rock was a Native American artifact. Losing patience, and because I am more often than not a jerk, I crushed her dreams. Sometimes schist is just that. She did unearth a partial femur, though. Not wanting to prolong my time there, I lied and told her it was a petrified branch. I freely admit that I was so hot, tired, and sick of being eaten by bugs that any notion of the sanctity of human remains had long dissipated. Whoever’s femur is now irrevocably disassociated from the rest of its skeleton, I apologize. I was never a responsible archaeologist. 

Fortunately Ann went easier on me after that, and we eventually made our pilgrimage to Gima’s grave in West Laurel Cemetery where Gima is buried along the edge of the Dougherty family plot. The Doughertys, her mother’s relations, had owned a successful distillery, and the large family marker, simple yet monolithic, unmistakably spoke of Main Line Philadelphia wealth. As has been established, Potters aren’t remarkably sentimental folk, but both of us were a little choked up once we found Gima—Ann for missing her, and me for having just gotten to know her and liking her so much. She and her other relations lie below a towering sassafras tree, which provides shade, and a hangout for birds (who poop). The raised lettering that someone in the Dougherty line chose for the headstones is a perfect catch all for droppings. I scrubbed Gima with a toothbrush we had for just such an occasion while Ann dutifully documented everyone there. 

I felt a bit sad when I realized that she was alone, Gia having been buried with Marie thirty years later in a Sheldon family plot. But she died so unexpectedly, I’m sure that Gia hadn’t made any preparations for such an event. Hell, even if she had lived to a ripe old age, I’m sure he wouldn’t have made plans. It was not his strong suit. But at least she’s with her parents, grandparents, and her uncles Sherborne and Parke. 

Ann and I traipsed through at least nine different cemeteries in Philadelphia, each one chock full of our Potter and Simonin relatives. It seems that both sides of the family have always been rather poor at the maintenance of our ancestors, seemingly to the point of forgetting that they’re even there. Many a cemetery staffer gleefully indicated that there was room for at least three full burials and several cremations at each site. Perhaps earlier generations aspired to more fecund offspring, but we’ve failed to fill up a single reservation. Part of me is delighted to know that should I come to Jesus at the end of my days, there is many an earthly home for me to choose from. But I am further burdened by the knowledge that there are now all these ancestors who were once nothing more than names on a handwritten genealogy chart from Gia who are in need of attention. Who’s going to take care of them? As was abundantly clear from the litter of broken stones we came across, the perpetual care that we’d paid for amounts to little more than mowing if there isn’t a living relation demanding customer service. Which I did. Might as well get our money’s worth.

At the very least, Aunt Ann has undertaken the task of documentation, and has done a beautiful job of it. So it seems incumbent on me to finally accept the role of family historian. I just hope that the rest of the family proves to be half as interesting as Gima. 

And all those hours with Aunt Ann? Turns out I like her even more now then when she was our babysitter all those decades ago. The trip to Philadelphia was definitely worth pulling on pants for. 

You can see photos of Alexa’s trip at her Flickr page.  

Cocktails 101


"Drinking First-Aid Kit" by Allison Sommers 

Sarah Gilbert is an international aid worker who has lived abroad most of her adult life, toasting with Rioja in Spain, sipping Grüner Veltliner in Austria, and enjoying Malbec in Argentina before her great grandmother, Gima, inspired her first cocktail in NYC. She’s open to wine suggestions for her next home: Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

That the Gilberts enjoy a good cocktail is hardly a secret. An ex-boyfriend of mine loves telling the story of coming to my college graduation and entering my parents’ hotel room to find my mother pulling out four bottles of different types of liquor from her luggage so that all the invited family members could have their preferred apéritif  that night in the privacy of our rooms. I couldn’t understand his amusement; Mom’s packing seemed like logical foresight to me. Who wants to dress up and meet in the crowded hotel bar when the people you want to see are in comfortable adjoining rooms?  

Needless to say, I was not surprised to note that one entire chapter of my great-grandmother Gima’s cookbook was dedicated to preparing a good pre-dinner drink. Or to read about her belief that “any halfway intelligent woman should be able to produce a drinkable cocktail.” I was, however, a bit abashed to admit how badly my intellect measured up to my venerable forebear’s definition. I can open a mean beer —whether in a can or bottle—and uncork a wine bottle with the best of them before pouring my guests a glass of red, white or rosé. However, I was surprised to realize, at 35 years of age, I have never prepared a cocktail, drinkable or otherwise.

The reasons behind my ignorance vary. For one, I gravitate toward dense cities where people don’t entertain in their miniscule apartments and instead meet friends in bars and restaurants. Also, the knowledge that alcoholism runs in my family, together with a few embarrassing incidents that need not be recorded here, have led me to stay away from hard liquor and stick to wine. And I believe that drinking habits have changed over the generations. My parents received a martini pitcher for their wedding, complete with a glass stem for mixing. According to Gima’s recipe, a dry martini is 3 parts gin and 1 part French vermouth over ice. Which is 100% alcohol before the any melting occurs. I don’t know anyone who entertains like that now, and when friends come to visit they bring a bottle of wine, which complements the one that I have waiting for them. Then again, neither do we have the cooks that Gima mentions come and go so easily throughout her life. In any case, I resolved to gain Gima’s respect and learn her cocktails.  So I decided to attempt the one that seemed the most complicated, the “Strawberry Blossom.”

Some lessons learned?  A jigger is not, like the league or a fortnight, an antiquated unit of measurement. It is actually an ounce and a half and can be measured out in the tool of the same name. I’m sure Gima turned in her grave as I exclaimed excitedly over this nugget of information. Also, besides the jigger, cocktail preparation requires a fully stocked bar and a shaker. Luckily I know Brian Ellison, the owner of Death’s Door Spirits, the largest distillery in Wisconsin. And if anyone is going to have a fully stocked bar and the proper tools for a good cocktail, it’s the good people of the industry. So we went to work.

After mulling the strawberries and straining their seeds, I added the requisite tablespoon of lemon and sugar, mixing it all together into a syrupy juice that looked quite professional, in my humble opinion. A jigger of gin and bit of heavy cream is added to the shaker, along with some ice and the fun begins. I can now attest that one has not truly lived until one has shaken a cocktail. The restraint required not to dance around with the improvised maraca! I have to admit I might have wiggled a bit to accompany the “cha cha cha” of the mixing drink. But I’m sure Gima would not only have not minded, she might even have approved. And joined in. I was proud to present my friends with my fledgling efforts. My Strawberry Blossom was declared excellent, tart and creamy with a tint of lemony citrus. The only constructive feedback was that it might be a tad too strong. Which, I’m sure, is just the way Gima would have liked it.

—Sarah Gilbert

Scramble Eggs—The Indian Way!

A guest post from Diana!

2 eggs, a pinch of salt, some chopped red onions, a pinch of garam masala, some chopped corriander, a handful of chopped tandoori chicken slices


Beat up eggs in a bowl and add all the ingredients and keep it aside for 5 minutes to settle. Heat up the fire and place a pan on it as you drizzle some oil as you favour. Once oil gets hot, splash in the content of the mixture made earlier and simply scramble up the egg and serve with a cup of Masala Chai once ready!

Long Live Our Livers!


Cocktails by Marci Washington

I realize there’s a certain irony to writing about your great grandmother’s alcoholism right after you’ve attended your third wine tasting in as many days, but it was Austrian wine, which doesn’t really count, and I think Gima would appreciate it.

Gima was, by all accounts, the life of every party. Unfortunately that cut her life short by a considerable amount, as she was dead at 62, having aspirated sometime during the night of April 25, 1955. As we’ve established, my father didn’t talk much about his childhood, but one of the few things I knew about Gima was that she had died unexpectedly, possibly by her own hand, as a result of a combination of booze and pills. It’s actually a lot to take in when you’re a kid, and your brushes with death haven’t encompassed much more than the loss of your pet hamster, Ms. Bianca. Surprisingly, perhaps, we still didn’t talk about alcoholism when Grampa Shel died after several decades of taking his frustrations out on his liver, and no one mentioned Gima as my brother’s incipient alcoholism reared its ugly head in his late teens. I feel a bit bad about that—while some of us seem to have inherited Gima’s flair in the kitchen or her breezy and intrepid writing style, more than one member of the family inherited her deadly attachment to drink.

Read more

Liz Gilbert interviews at Dinner: A Love Story

She was so ahead of her time. If she wasn’t the editor of Real Simple, she’d have a food truck or she’d be celebrity female artisanal butcher or she’d own a pickle factory in Brooklyn. Other than maybe the food allergies and the veganism she’d be totally on board with everything going on in the food world today.

Read more at DALS!

GQ: Is there a dish you think every guy should know how to cook for a woman? Elizabeth Gilbert: I think that if you can roast a chicken, you can get whatever you want out of a woman. Maybe it’s just me but I would suspect that a man trying to impress a woman would be more likely to bring out the steak—”I killed this for you, now I’m grilling it for you.” Which is just going to remind her of her dad in a bad way. Or he’s going to try and go full Food Network, which just makes you think that if you have sex, he’s going to be performing other stuff that he saw on TV, as well. [Laughs] A man that can cook you a proper meal that is like a weekday meal—which I think cannot be better than in the form of a roast chicken—that’s the greatest.Read More

GQ: Is there a dish you think every guy should know how to cook for a woman? 
Elizabeth Gilbert: 
I think that if you can roast a chicken, you can get whatever you want out of a woman. Maybe it’s just me but I would suspect that a man trying to impress a woman would be more likely to bring out the steak—”I killed this for you, now I’m grilling it for you.” Which is just going to remind her of her dad in a bad way. Or he’s going to try and go full Food Network, which just makes you think that if you have sex, he’s going to be performing other stuff that he saw on TV, as well. [Laughs] A man that can cook you a proper meal that is like a weekday meal—which I think cannot be better than in the form of a roast chicken—that’s the greatest.

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A guest post from Sheldon Potter!


Portrait of Gima’s husband Sheldon F. Potter by Alex Fine.

Sheldon Potter IV is the towheaded little boy that Gima writes about in At Home on the Range and in her cooking columns for the Sunday Star. His hair is now pure white, yet still full. He spent a large chunk of his early years with Gima and her husband, Gia, and hopes to redeem his beloved grandfather a bit. Liz gave him a thorough and deserved scourging as a husband, but he was an adored grandfather with a penchant for plaid. —Alexa Potter

My father was a career naval officer. He tried being a “civilian”—a stockbroker in fact—between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Korean War. But it didn’t take, and he returned to the Navy. So we moved a lot, and I had been in fifteen different schools by the time I was fifteen. As a result, my memories of Gia and Gima are fragmented. 

My earliest memories of my grandparents go all the way back to Salisbury, Maryland, when Gia was a ship inspector during the war. Mother and I lived with them for a while, and I didn’t meet Dad until he returned home from the war in 1946. From then until the early ’50s, Mother and I spent our summers with Gia and Gima in Rehoboth Beach in the house on Field’s End Road. Dad would visit on the weekends and help Gia with things like drywall while I acted as “go-fer” for them.

Gia was still practicing law off and on in Philadelphia; my mother was a hostess at Rehoboth’s Corner Cupboard Inn; Gima took care of me. I learned all about boiling the piss out of kidneys for kidney stew and how to wash calves’ brains and lightly dredge them in flour prior to sautéing them, delicately, in butter. I got to play with sweetbreads too. I remember my yellow vinyl stool in the kitchen; it was mine because I was the “stirrer” and I needed to stand on it to do my job. Gima bought me my first fishing rod and used to take me to “Treasure Beach” to search for old coins from a post-Revolutionary War wreck called the De Braak. I actually found one! Many years later Gia told me Gima had planted the coin and led me to it. That’s my Gima!

The family moved from Alexandria to San Francisco and on to Seattle around 1953; Gima passed away in 1955. I moved back to Philadelphia to live with Nana and Pa (my mother’s parents) in the fall of that year while the rest of the family moved to Erie, PA, which was Dad’s final duty station. I never got to see my Gima again after we went to the West Coast. In fact I didn’t see much of Gia either, except the occasional holiday. He was always fun, but got fatter and drank more without Gima in his life.

In 1961 Gia went to England to visit his distant cousin, Marie Hillyer, whom he would eventually marry. I was almost an adult; Marie was very “British” (although born in Philadelphia and distantly related to the Potter family), smoked a pipe, and never boiled the piss out of kidneys for her kidney stew. She was as unique as Gima in her own way. She also saved Gia from self-destruction, limiting his intake of both alcohol and fatty foods, though she was no more successful than Gima in getting him to eat his vegetables.

Gia was an essential part of my childhood, imparting the skills and knowledge that Dad wasn’t around to give. Dad was a known wood butcher, whereas Gia was a talented carpenter. He taught me how to use woodworking tools while he was building the house in Henlopen Acres, where Gima wrote At Home on the Range. I built my first drafting table when I was twelve, living in Seattle, and would go on to a career building locomotives. He was my guide in all things mechanical and precise—at thirteen I can remember carving ham, as taught by Gia, “so thin you could read a newspaper through the slice by moonlight.” 

I still miss them all—Gima, Gia, and Marie.