inside the legendary cookbook of Alice B. Toklas

inside the legendary cookbook of Alice B. Toklas


Our cultural touchstones series looks at influential books.

Alice B. Toklas wrote one of the bestselling cookbooks of all time. One reason for its popularity was the inclusion of stories of her 39-year relationship with the great modernist writer Gertrude Stein. Another was its recipe for hash fudge, which made Toklas an icon of 1960s counterculture.

Alice wasn’t a very common name in the 1980s when I was an undergraduate. People used to tease me about it: you can get anything you want at Alice’s restaurant, living next door to Alice, go ask Alice – and mysterious references to Alice B. Toklas.

I had never heard of her before; I wasn’t that cool. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to unconsciously associate her with Alice the housekeeper from the 1970s sitcom The Brady Bunch.

Nevertheless, I felt an affinity with this other Alice, who died when I was three years old. (The B, incidentally, stands for Babette.) When I realised The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book had been published 70 years ago in 1954, I decided it was finally time to become better acquainted.

The ladies of 27 Rue de Fleurus

Toklas was born in San Francisco in 1877. She studied piano at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 1907, when she was 29, she travelled to Paris and met Gertrude Stein the day after she arrived. It was love at first sight.

In the book Stein wrote about their life, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein has Toklas say: “I was impressed by the coral brooch she wore and by her voice.” The brooch is now in the collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge UK, and appears in Pablo Picasso’s famous portrait of Stein.

The women moved in together and presided over one of the most renowned literary and artistic salons of the time, entertaining Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Francis Picabia, Henri Matisse, Edith Sitwell, Natalie Barney, and many others.

Surrealists rubbed shoulders with cubists and modernists, the exchange of ideas lubricated by delicious food and drink. Toklas was in charge of catering, but they also employed a series of cooks for the day-to-day.

Hemingway described Toklas thus:

[She] had a very pleasant voice, was small, very dark, with her hair cut like Joan of Arc in the Boutet de Monvel illustrations […] we liked Miss Stein and her friend, although the friend was frightening. The paintings and the cakes and the eau-de-vie were truly wonderful.

Toklas did not like Hemingway, though, particularly because of the sexual frisson between him and Stein – perhaps that was why he was frightened.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, Paris was crawling with American migrants or “expats”. Stein and Toklas were a tourist attraction, like the Ladies of Llangollen before them. If you had an introduction, you could visit 27 Rue de Fleurus and its incredible art collection.

In the first world war, Stein and Toklas drove delivery trucks. In their 60s when the second world war began, they decided to wait it out. By this time, Stein was increasingly unwell with stomach cancer. Stein and Toklas moved to the country, but continued to receive visitors and entertain.

Stein died in hospital in 1946 with Toklas by her side. Toklas said in a letter to a friend that it was the end to all happiness. It devastated her. But it also allowed her to come into her own. She started to put together the cookbook that made her practically a household name.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, October 1934.
AP



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A modernist in the kitchen

Toklas’ literary output was two cookbooks and a memoir. Stein also immortalised her in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (her only bestseller), and the erotic poem Lifting Belly, written in 1916-17 but only published in 1953.

The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book was much more than a collection of recipes. It was also semi-autobiographical. It included observations of the differences between French and American food cultures, culinary tales involving their famous friends, and stories of wartime life.

In his book The Gourmands’ Way – Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy, Justin Spring called it a “brilliant, deftly comic hybrid”.

Toklas had much in common with the culinary writer Elizabeth David. David’s recipes brought a taste of the sunny Mediterranean to bleak post-war Britain, where people were still living on rations of powdered eggs and losing their minds over a fresh orange. Toklas aimed her book at a British and American audience, stating that “it will be pleasant if the ideas in it, besides surviving the Atlantic, manage to cross the Channel and find acceptance in British kitchens too”.

Food scholar Alice McLean noted how both Toklas and David

claimed the pleasures of gastronomy previously reserved for men. [They] expanded women’s food writing beyond the domestic realm by pioneering forms of self-expression that celebrate female appetite for pleasure and for culinary adventure.

Janet Malcolm, in her 2007 book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, says that “most of Toklas’ recipes were and remain too elaborate or too strange to attempt”. The sentiment is echoed by other commentators. Is this a fair assessment?

Certainly, there are recipes like the “hen with golden eggs”, where a boiled chicken is stuffed with mashed potatoes shaped into eggs and fried in butter until golden. With the extras arranged around the chicken on a platter, reduced boiling liquor enriched with butter and cream is poured over.

“This is an amusing way to present a chicken,” Toklas wrote: “a delicious dish”.

Picasso drawing a fish. Le Mystère Picasso – Henri-Georges Clouzot (1956).
YouTube

For Picasso, Toklas cooked a whole fish and covered it with a design of red mayonnaise, sieved hard-boiled eggs, truffles and herbs. Picasso “exclaimed at its beauty”, but commented that it was more in Matisse’s style than his own.

A cake they enjoyed in the town of Mâcon had four layers of almond meringue, separated by mocha, kirsch and pistachio butter cream, and decorated with crystallised apricot and angelica flowers. Toklas experimented until she had got it as close as she could to the original.

But then there were recipes as simple as this:

Mutton roasted and basted with port is out of this world. Try it.

My own forays include Chicken à la Comtadine, where a jointed chicken is simmered in butter and flambéed in red vermouth. Salad Port Royal consists of boiled potato slices and green beans, mixed with shredded apple, and dressed with mayonnaise. The silky texture of a home-made mayonnaise makes this simple salad delectable.




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A light snack in Dante’s Inferno

So what about the “haschich fudge”? It wasn’t actually an original Toklas: the recipe was contributed by Brion Gysin, in a section of the cookbook with recipes from many of Stein and Toklas’s friends.

Gysin was a Canadian experimental artist, who moved to Paris in 1934. He was expelled from the Surrealists by the autocratic control freak André Breton. In 1954, he opened a restaurant in Morocco.

The recipe stated, tongue-in-cheek, that it was suitable for a ladies’ bridge club. Lucie Hamilton, in a review for the Australian magazine The Farmer and Settler, said it was “more akin to a light snack taken in Dante’s Inferno”.

As she explains at the end of her reading of the recipe in the recording above, Toklas was not aware the hash fudge would cause a controversy in America, where consuming narcotics was illegal.

The irony is that the fudge does not actually contain hashish, the resin extracted from the cannabis plant. The recipe recommends foraging for wild cannabis sativa or cannabis indica and grinding the dried leaves to add to the fudge.

After the censored fudge recipe was finally published in a 1960s US edition of the book, it was transformed into the all-American brownie.




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If you’re going to San Francisco

In 1968, the year after Toklas died, Peter Sellers starred in the movie I Love You Alice B. Toklas. A conservative lawyer is given hash brownies by a young woman and turns into a hippie. He tries to return to his conventional life, but finds that he can’t do it any more.

In the final scene, he leaves his fiancée at the altar and runs into the street, saying “there’s gotta be something beautiful out there! There’s got to be. I know it!”

1967 was the “summer of love” where hippies who had “turned on, tuned in and dropped out” congregated in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The city Toklas had left in 1907 for a more exciting life was the now the epicentre of a global movement of environmental awareness and grassroots peace activism.

Across the world, young people were repudiating the values of the previous generations. They rejected war, encouraged self-discovery, and embraced Eastern mysticism.

Hash brownies were part of a panoply of mind-altering substances that opened the door to cosmic oneness.

While Stein gradually became part of the literary canon, Toklas entered the annals of popular culture. In the 1990s, both women were elevated to the ranks of the celestial when craters on the planet Venus were named after them.

Toklas’ fame was not just a result of the haschich fudge, though. The doyen of American gastronomy, James Beard, said of her:

Alice was one of the really great cooks of all time. She went all over Paris to find the right ingredients for her meals. She had endless specialities, but her chicken dishes were especially magnificent. The secret of her talent was great pains and a remarkable palate.

She also had imagination, wit and a charming arrogance.

But perhaps Gertrude Stein described her best, in Lifting Belly:

She is a dish.
A dish of good.
Perfect.
Pleasure.
In the way of dishes.

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