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The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, Illustrated

Love, loss, and the conquest of French cuisine.

Gertrude Stein reached fame late in life with her self-published 1932 memoirs titled — in the author’s characteristic fashion of this-means-that semantic semantic subterfuge — The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, after the love of Stein’s life. The two had met in 1907, the day Toklas arrived in Paris, and remained together for 39 years, until Stein’s death in 1946. But Toklas herself left a memorable imprint on twentieth-century culture, beyond her role as Stein’s lifelong partner.

I was recently fortunate enough to find a copy of the handsome out-of-print 1993 Folio Society edition of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (public library) — a precursor to such classics as Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, originally published in 1954 and written in a style similar to Stein’s autobiography. The cookbook had been Toklas’s lifelong dream but, intimidated by Stein’s literary prowess, she never ventured into writing herself during Stein’s lifetime. Finally, at the age of 75 and long widowed, Toklas wrote the book over the course of four months, while battling hepatitis, with a rigorous writing routine that allowed “no telephone calls and no door bells answered.”

The Folio edition, which comes bound in silver leather and tucked in a hard slip-case, features gorgeous drawings by artist Natacha Ledwidge.

English biographer Diana Souhami writes in the introduction:

From the time of her childhood in San Francisco, Alice collected recipes. When life became ‘too black’ she read cookbooks an was ‘immediately lost to everything outside.’ She did not keep diaries, but recipes nudged her excellent memory and through them she conjured recollections of place, time and extraordinary company. A leisured hedonism pervades her Cookbook, an assumption that few things are more important than lunch, that there are, after all, only 365 of them in a year and that a bad one is a waste. Cooking was, she said, an art on a par with painting.

Yet despite her passion for culinary art, Toklas herself, not even five feet tall and weighing 100 pounds, was a light and picky eater. She derived her pleasure from her role as a critic rather than consumer of food. Souhami observes the curious yin-yang of Stein and Toklas’s gustatory dispositions:

[Alice] was a critic and connoisseur, more interested in preparing food, tasting it and passing comment on it, than in consuming it. Gertrude Stein’s appetite, by comparison, was prodigious. She loved eating, and in her autobiographical book, The Making of Americans, called it one of the main pleasures of her childhood — the other was reading.

One thing that comes through, subtly but unmistakably, in the narrative surrounding the recipes is the extraordinary bond and remarkable devotion between Toklas and Stein, who seemed to operate as the two halves of one graceful organism. From the day they met until Stein’s death, the two were never apart. Souhami writes:

They never travelled without each other, or entertained separately, or worked on independent projects. They regarded themselves as married. … In the stack of Gertrude’s manuscripts, most of them rejected by publishers until after her death, she wrote often of her love for Alice, whom she called her kitten, baby, queen, cherubim, cake, lobster and wife. When separated from Alice she felt low in her mind. And Alice, towards the end of her own long life, said that from the moment they met, ‘It was Gertrude Stein who held my complete attention, as she did for all the many years I knew her until her death, and all these empty ones since then.’


In her Cookbook, written after out of a total of twenty years of lonely widowhood, Alice gives a gentle, teasing picture of the woman for whom most of the recipes were prepared. Gertrude, she says, was ‘always cheerful, agreeable and curious,’ did not like to see people working, had no time for officials or bureaucracy, liked American food and was good at finding mushrooms in fields. She never learned to reverse Auntie the car and spent a great deal of time changing spark-plugs. She disliked wasps, hornets, bees, spiders, centipedes and bats, and Alice would get rid of them with ‘determination, newspapers, a broom and pincers.’

Even though Alice spent the vast majority of her energies serving Gertrude’s genius — she cooked, typed Stein’s manuscripts, made housekeeping arrangements, sewed, shampooed the dog, and rose before dawn to pick wild strawberries for Gertrude’s breakfast ‘before the sun kissed them’ — Sohuami assures:

There was nothing demeaning in her apparent servitude. She was the power behind the throne, the uncompromising promoter of Gertrude’s talent and the manager of both their lives. She shaped their fame and promoted their public image. Those who wanted to see Gertrude were first checked out by Alice, and if Alice did not approve, they were turned away. It was she who selected the motto ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’ to appear in a circle on Gertrude’s stationery. Gertrude first used the words in a poem called ‘Sacred Emily.’ Above everything, Alice ensured that the quality of their daily life was orderly and agreeable. She cultivated the art of enjoyable living. Food, friendship, travel, painting, literature and conversation were its main ingredients.

But success, at least by way of cultural acclaim, came late in Stein’s life — by the time of her first bestseller, she was 58. Having just reached the zenith of her fame, Stein succumbed to cancer, leaving Alice widowed and heartbroken. Despite her own devastation, however, Alice once again put her love of Gertrude first: Per Stein’s will, Alice was free to sell anything she wished from Gertrude’s voluminous and prized art collection, valued at $6 million by 1967; but she knew how important these pictures were to Gertrude, so she set out to do anything she could to survive while keeping the collection intact. The Cookbook might have been her lifelong dream, but its ultimate manifestation was a survivalist business decision, its publication a source of income above all else. That it went on to become a cultural classic in its own right was, as far as Alice might be posthumously concerned, a side of fortuitous chance, sprinkled with kismet.

Timid as she might have been in appearance and eating habits, Toklas was unafraid of having a commanding point of view when it came to the theory and practice of cuisine:

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.

For mussels, noting that “if one likes mussels at all one likes them madly,” Toklas offers a fennel sauce:

The mussels can be served cold with a


made by adding 1 whole fennel, cooked covered in boiling salted water for 3 minutes, removed from water, drained, pressed and wiped dry. Then chop very fine and add to a sauce mousseline.

Much of the book uses the recipes as anchors for autobiographical and historical narratives. Her hot chocolate recipe, for instance, is served amidst the context of the war-torn Paris in the latter part of WWI in 1917, where Stein and Toklas volunteered to drive food and wood to hospitals in their ancient Model T Ford, lovingly nicknamed Auntie after Stein’s Aunt Puline:

Aunt Pauline had been militarised and so could be requisitioned for any use connected with the wounded. Gertrude Stein evacuated the wounded who came into [the luxury hotel] Nîmes on the ambulance trains. Material from our unit organised and supplied a small first-aid operating room. The Red Cross nuns in the best French manner served in large bowls to the wounded piping


3 ozs melted chocolate to 1 quart hot milk. Bring to a boil and simmer for ½ hour. Then beat for 5 minutes. The nuns made huge quantities in copper cauldrons, so that the whisk they used was huge and heavy. We all took turns beating.

Aunt Pauline was succeeded by Lady Godiva, thusly named because she came to Toklas and Stein stripped of everything on her dashboard, naked in the way only an open two-seater Ford could be in post-WWI France.

A chapter titled “Recipes from Friends” invites contributions from Stein and Toklas’s social circle. Several come from poet Mary Oliver, at the time in her late teens, in a delightful micro-predecessor to the 1973 gem John Keats’s Porridge: Favorite Recipes of American Poets. In one, Oliver offers:


Cut up one small octopus, remove bone from interior. Dip particles in honey, roll in paprika, then plunge in batter mixed with garlic. Boil in olive oil. Serve with rice; with a sauce made with tomatoes over it, white wine, green peppers and finely diced mushrooms.

Morocco-based painter and writer Brion Gysin, a friend of Gertrude’s in the 1930s, wrote in with a recipe for hashish fudge, complete with notes on growing cannabis at home. Naively, Alice included it and a publicity crisis ensued. Harpers, the book’s publisher, eventually sent a telegram to the Attorney-General to check if they were in legal trouble and, if so, whether they should halt the printing. (They were not; they did not.) Some even argued Alice had included the recipe as a publicity stunt.

(which anyone could whip up on a rainy day)

This is the food of paradise — of Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises: it might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR. In Morocco it is thought to be good for warding off the common cold in damp winter weather and is, indeed, more effective if taken with large quantities of hot mint tea. Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Saint Theresa did, you can do better if you can bear to be ravished by ‘un évanouissement reveillé‘.

Take 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverised in a mortar. About a handful each of stoned dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts: chop these and mix them together. A bunch of Cannabis sativa can be pulverised. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts, kneaded together. About a cup of sugar dissolved in a big pat of butter. Rolled into a cake and cut into pieces or made into balls about the size of a walnut, it should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient.

Obtaining the Cannabis may present certain difficulties, but the variety known as Cannabis sativa grows as a common weed, often unrecognised, everywhere in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa; besides being cultivated as a crop for the manufacture of rope. In the Americas, while often discouraged, its cousin, called Cannabis indica, has been observed even in city window boxes. It should be picked and dried as soon as it has gone to seed and while the plant is still green.

The tome is a gem in its entirety, full of mouthwatering recipes from the golden age of cooking and fascinating vignettes from the lives of Toklas and Stein against a broader cultural and historical backdrop. Even if you can’t get a hold of the Folio edition, the classic one is well worth a read.


Amanda Palmer on the Art of Asking and the Shared Dignity of Giving and Receiving

“When we really see each other, we want to help each other.”

“It would be a terrible calamity,” Henry Miller wrote in his meditation on the beautiful osmosis between giving and receiving, “for the world if we eliminated the beggar. The beggar is just as important in the scheme of things as the giver. If begging were ever eliminated God help us if there should no longer be a need to appeal to some other human being, to make him give of his riches.” And yet, we live in a culture that perpetuates the false perception of a certain power dynamic between giver and receiver, and — worse yet — stigmatizes the very act of asking as undignified.

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending some time with the wonderful Amanda Palmer who, besides being an extraordinarily talented musician, is also a fellow champion of open culture and believer in making good work freely available, trusting that those who find value in it will support it accordingly. Disillusioned with the questionable success standards of the music industry, she recently left her record label and set out to self-release her next album in what became the most heartily funded music project in the history of Kickstarter — but not without some harsh criticism by those too attached to the crumbling comforts of the Olden Ways. In this brave talk, easily my favorite TED talk of all time, Amanda invites us to reclaim the art of asking from the insecure grip of shame and celebrate it instead as the sublime surge of mutuality that it is:

Through the very act of asking people, I connected with them. And when you connect with them, people want to help you. It’s kind of counterintuitive for a lot of artists — they don’t want to ask for things. It’s not easy to ask. … Asking makes you vulnerable.


I don’t see these things as risks — I see them as trust. … But the perfect tools can’t help us if we can’t face each other, and give and receive fearlessly — but, more importantly, to ask without shame. … When we really see each other, we want to help each other. I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, ‘How do we make people pay for music?’ What if we started asking, ‘How do we let people pay for music?’

Given how close to home Amanda’s eloquent words strike, I chatted with her about what seems to be the greatest challenge to this cultural shift toward destigmatizing asking:

MP: As someone who’s been called an “internet pan-handler” for asking my community for support, I’m astounded by some people’s cynicism in failing to see the dignified mutuality in these exchanges. What can we do to shift the culture around them from pan-handling to daisy-handing?

AP: Well…this is the problem with doing a 12-minute TED talk instead of writing a 220-page book. There’s a lot of simplification involved. The concept is more or less that when you trust people to help you, they often do, and artists have done this from the dawn of time. I’m sure the early-days minstrels were epically talented couchsurfers. Maybe there were cave-surfers way back in the day, who knows.

I saw a comment on the TED website that basically said, “this model is bullshit… would you feel OK if Justin Bieber decided to crowdsource teenage girls to be his maids and clean his room, etc.,” and that got me thinking. First of all, it isn’t about the theoretical, it’s about what artists/people actually do. I doubt Justin Bieber would think it was a wise idea to let a giddy little fan into his pad and clean up his stuff, it’d be a huge pain in this ass for him and his privacy, etc., since he’s a celebrity and all he’d need is that one fan tweeting a picture of the joint and used condom by his bedside and he’d have a PR nightmare on his hands.

And the Bieber example is odd, because it involves children, but let’s say the example was, I don’t know, Ozzy Osbourne. Let’s say Ozzy puts out a call for crowdsourced maids. If an adult raises his or her hand and says, “Hell yes!!! I’m happy to spend X time being Ozzy’s maid, this’ll be interesting,” isn’t that a fair exchange between two consenting adults? Don’t people do weird shit all the time for each other, for free, just for the experience? The story? The feeling?

What if we replaced Ozzy with … I don’t know … the Dalai Llama? Would we judge it differently? A lot of young monks give up their possessions, go study with a master, and do their master’s dishes … and we think of this in a kind of gentle-hearted karate-kid sort of romanticism. …

The idea is to let adults make their own rules, their own exchanges, their own decisions. We all value different things and experiences in different ways — and we can get very creative about it, and about the ways we help each other.

To partake in the architecture of this new paradigm and revel in the two-way street of this glorious mutuality, support Amanda’s music and ethos on her site, where you can download her fantastic new album — for free or for however much you’d like — and go see one of her shows if you get a chance. For more of her spirit of fierce openness, follow her Twitter.

Photograph: James Duncan Davidson for TED


Cultural Icons on Criticism

Twain, Sontag, Bradbury, Hitchens, Didion, and more.

In researching my recent piece for Harvard’s quarterly Nieman Reports, exploring the role of the critic as celebrator, I found myself sifting through bountiful marginalia on the subject of criticism, culled from a decade’s worth of reading. Here are some favorites.

Susan Sontag in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980:

Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol.

Mark Twain in Mark Twain’s Notebook:

The critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.

Ezra Pound in A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste:

Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.

Virginia Woolf in The Common Reader, Second Series:

[Critics] are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading. They can do nothing for us if we herd ourselves under their authority and lie down like sheep in the shade of a hedge. We can only understand their ruling when it comes in conflict with our own and vanquishes it.

Bertrand Russell in A Liberal Decalogue:

Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

John Updike in Picked-Up Pieces:

Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban.

Ray Bradbury, warmly irreverent as ever, in Zen and the Art of Writing:

I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

Criticism serves a lower end than art does, and has little effect on it, but by conveying value it serves a civilizing end.

Oscar Wilde in The Critic as Artist (Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing and Discussing Everything):

Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

Eleanor Roosevelt in You Learn By Living:

If you consider that you are being criticized by someone who is seeking knowledge and has an open mind, then you naturally feel you must try to meet that criticism. But if you feel that the criticism is made out of sheer malice and that no amount of explanation will change a point of view which has nothing to do with the facts, then the best thing is to put it out of your mind entirely.

Zadie Smith in a Granta interview about writing fiction, with an insight that applies to any art and echoes Bertrand Russell’s wisdom on creation vs. destruction:

Whenever I write a novel I’m reminded of the essential hubris of criticism. When I write criticism I’m in such a protected position: here are my arguments, here are my blessed opinions, here is my textual evidence, here my rhetorical flourish. One feels very pleased with oneself. Fiction has none of these defences. You are just a fool with a keyboard. It’s much harder. More frightening.

Theodore Roosevelt in The Man in the Arena: Selected Writings of Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Terry McMillan in Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do:

The thing is, the critics hate you when you become commercially successful. They look for stuff to find wrong.

Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything:

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Life in Letters :

I dont mind critisism a bit— — the critics are always wrong … but they are always right in the sense that they make one re-examine one’s artistic conscience.

Joan Didion echoes a similar sentiment in this 1977 Paris Review interview, collected in The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1-4:

A certain amount of resistance is good for anybody. It keeps you awake.

Anaïs Nin in The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947:

I fear criticism because I fear it will destroy my spontaneity. I fear restrictions. I live by impulse and improvisation, and want to write the same way.

Anaïs Nin in The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5: 1947-1955:

I find in American life an excess of harshness, criticism, little capacity for admiration.

Neil Gaiman, in his fantastic advice to those embarking upon life in the arts:

Someone on the internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid, or evil, or it’s all been done before? Make good art.

And when all else fails, some modern wisdom:

Complement with more collected wisdom from luminaries on the subjects of art, science, love, daily writing routines, and the meaning of life.


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