Better known as the self-effacing amanuensis and lover of Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas was no shrinking violet in the kitchen. Her culinary prowess, as well as sustaining Gertrude’s literary endeavours (and considerable girth), set the stage for those more celebrated cooks who came later. Long before Julia Child’s, Elizabeth David’s or Alice Waters’ conversions to the faith, Alice B. had not only become a devotee of la cuisine Française but had well and truly mastered the art.
In their somewhat eccentric menage, Alice played wife, happily tending to the domestic arrangements while Gertrude took centre stage. She was the answer to every modern woman’s prayer, quietly smoothing the way and tidying up behind the scenes. Insulated from the mundanities of life, Gertrude was set free to focus wholly on creating her next masterpiece. No wonder she always looked so serenely self-composed (while not surprisingly the strain of her heavy responsibilities sometimes showed on the diminutive Alice’s face).
Clearly, during the 39 years of their relationship, any writerly aspirations Alice may have entertained had to be sublimated in deference to the needs of the acknowledged “genius” of the family. Consequently she didn’t publish her first book until 1954 at the age of 77, well after Gertrude’s death.
This was the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook a fascinating compilation of recipes collected over the years interspersed with anecdotes and reminiscences. It’s here that Alice’s instinctive understanding and appreciation of French food is obvious:
“To cook as the French do one must respect the quality and flavour of the ingredients. Exaggeration is not admissible. Flavours are not all amalgamative. These qualities are not purchasable but may be cultivated. The haute cuisine has arrived at the enviable state of reacting instinctively to these known principles.” (from Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, 1954)
Its publication sparked no small controversy, owing to the inclusion of a recipe for Haschich Fudge, the ingredients for which included cannibus. The book’s commercial success (it’s rarely been out of print since 1954 and the thirtieth anniversary edition hit the top fifty French cookbooks list on Amazon after its release) can I think be attributed to far more than the infamous Alice B. Toklas brownies.
Even if you’re not a cook, a browse through the chapter titles alone is enough to tempt you – “Murder in the Kitchen”, “Dishes for Artists”, “Food to which Aunt Pauline and Lady Godiva Led Us” and “Recipes from Friends” being just a few. Considering the shifting panorama of stellar names who made up their coterie of friends over the years, the latter chapter is essential reading.
Artistically inclined fish lovers might like to try “Bass for Picasso”. As Alice tells us in her delightfully forthright prose:
“One day when Picasso was to lunch with us I decorated a fish in a way that I thought would amuse him. I chose a fine striped bass and cooked it according to a theory of my grandmother who rarely saw her kitchen but who had endless theories about cooking as well as about many other things…
Following her instructions for cooking the fish, she adds:
“A short time before serving it I covered the fish with an ordinary mayonnaise and, using a pastry tube, decorated it with a red mayonnaise, not coloured with catsup – horror of horrors – but with tomato paste. Then I made a design with sieved hard-boiled eggs, the whites and the yolks apart, with truffles and with finely chopped fines herbes. I was proud of my chef d’oeuvre when it was served and Picasso exclaimed at its beauty. But, said he, should it not rather have been made in honour of Matisse than of me.”
“Custard Josephine Baker” is another one that shows her wry sense of humour, containing as it does three bananas. Josephine Baker, the darling of Jazz Age Paris, was renowned for her “banana dance”, in which she sported a brief skirt (and little else) made up of 16 bananas.
While she became an expert in French cooking, Alice nevertheless maintained a strong allegiance to the “simple” food of her home land. On Sunday evenings (the servant’s night off) she took over the reins in the kitchen and at Gertrude’s insistence, Sunday night supper had to be American food. Such wholesome down-home fare as fricasseed chicken, cornbread and apple pie regularly made appearances at the Sunday night supper table. Thanksgiving was also celebrated in the traditional way with turkey and all the trimmings.
Although her years after Gertrude’s untimely death were beset with loneliness, financial problems and ill health, Alice never lost her fascination with food. In a letter written to a friend late in life, she provides a couple of helpful hints:
“If your lettuce is getting old, soak it root down in one inch of water.”
“The Indian way to blanch almonds – soak almonds overnight. Next morning peel them. The skins will slip off easily. The almonds will be somewhat tender. Almonds blanched in boiling water are hard and quite tasteless.”
If your only knowledge of Alice is as the subject of Gertrude Stein’s only commercially successful novel The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, or as the shadowy doorkeeper to the glittering salon of her larger than life partner in Woody Allen’s movie, Midnight in Paris, you’ll be richly rewarded by making a closer acquaintance with her through the pages of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook.
by Anne Green