Love, loss, and the conquest of French cuisine.
By Maria Popova
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:
PILAW STELLA MARIS DE PORTO FINO
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.