The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook
This is the out of print Folio edition, illustrated by Natacha Ledwidge.
Alice B. Toklas was the life partner of American avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein. They met in Paris in 1907 through a mutual friend - Alice had gone to France to escape her earthquake and fire ravaged hometown of San Fransisco and the assumed responsibility of taking care of her father, brother and a string of older male cousins. Gertrude had been living in Paris with her brother Leo for four years and had already begun collecting the paintings of then unknown artists like Picasso, Cézanne and Matisse, a collection later to become a key part of her legacy. The two fell instantly in love and spent the next 39 years together, never apart, until Gertrude's death in 1946.
They remained in France all those years, driving ambulances and pitching in where they could during both World Wars. Alice describes one morning during the early stages of WWII, German and French planes fighting two miles away from their then home in Bilignin; she took her father's cue from the 1906 San Fransisco fire she survived, and they procured from town two hams, some groceries and hundreds of cigarettes before leaving their home. Alice writes, "The main road was filled with refugees, just as it had been in 1914 and in 1917. Everything that was happening had already been experienced, like half-awakening from nightmare."
Not long after meeting, the women agreed that Gertrude was a genius, and so Alice devoted her life to ensuring Gertrude's happiness, that she was well-fed (GS was a large woman with a voracious appetite) and the solitude needed for writing went undisturbed. Alice managed their lives. But when Alice would talk about writing a cookbook - guests and friends were insistent she do so - Gertrude ridiculed her and friends reported that the conversation always ended in a mammoth fight. Six years after Gertrude's death, Alice, age 75, wrote The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. She needed money and the publishing house Harper's had offered her a contract. She wrote it in four months, more memoir about meals they'd shared than recipes anyone (certainly not a novice cook) can recreate, delightful as they are. For example,
"Cream of Mushroom Soup
An equal amount of onions, leeks and celery chopped fine. Also fresh mushrooms. Mix together in a pot with butter and simmer partly. Then add 1 or 2 tablespoons flour. Stir while heating through. Add stock and cool for 1 hour. Strain and add some cream."
It's rather like a recipe I'd write (if I weren't considering my readers) and I love that mushrooms are almost an afterthought while also the primary ingredient.
Alice mentions a list of famous names who dined with her and Gertrude over the years - writers Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Paul Bowles and the aforementioned painters - though she makes more mention of their servants over the years and their two Model T Fords, Auntie and Godiva, which Gertrude drove all over France.
Sections include intriguing titles like "Murder in the Kitchen," "Beautiful Soup," "Dishes for Artists," and "Recipes from Friends." It is one of the recipes from a friend that indirectly brought my attention to this cookbook in the first place. I discovered the 1968 Peter Sellers film I Love You Alice B. Toklas in college. Sellers' uptight character, engaged yet already married to his straight-laced, suit-required job, meets the alluring and free spirited Nancy (Leigh Taylor-Young) and gradually becomes a hippie himself, encouraged by hash brownies Nancy makes from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Almost fifteen years later I found an article about the illustrated, out of print book on Brainpickings.org and searched out a used copy online. It smells like mothballs and the pages are yellowing but it's otherwise in great condition. Last week, after two years of thinking about this post, I finally read the book.
The recipe alluded to in the film is actually "Hashish Fudge (which anyone can whip up on a rainy day)" contributed to Alice's painter and writer friend Brion Gysin, who was living in Morocco. The recipe calls for peppercorns, nutmeg, coriander, dates, almonds, peanuts and cannibis sativa or it's American cousin cannabis indica, which Gysin insists grows so easily in the States that you could find it flourishing in window boxes. According to the book's forward by Diana Souhami, who also wrote a biography on these women, neither Alice nor the publisher was aware of what the recipe called for and later panicked they'd caused trouble after the book was already in print. Apparently they had not, and the book was a huge success.
I named my cat Alice B. after the famed cookbook author. I am, of course, the Gertrude (who lovingly called Alice "Pussy" in front of strangers - Gertrude was "Lovey"), and our contentious and loving relationship, at times, seems to mirror theirs. As I write these words, Alice stands over the keyboard, demanding my attention. In any case, I highly recommend this read for it's insight into these women's lives and French food and culture in the first half of the 20th century.