I have lots of cookbooks. Lots. Many are well-used (with the requisite smudges of sauces, olive oil and butter). But many others I only read and never cook from.
One of the best in that latter group is The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book.
Alice B. Toklas was a Paris institution — because, of course, she lived in the shadow of a Paris monument, Gertrude Stein. Misses Toklas and Stein met in 1907, on the very day that Alice arrived in Paris. They were soon partners and lovers (and remained so for the rest of their lives). And they held court over the most famous literary gatherings in Paris. Evenings that included the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson and Thornton Wilder…. (The apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus still bears a plaque. As it should.)
But, back to the cookbook. It was first published in 1954, eight years after Gertrude Stein’s death. In reality, it’s hardly a cookbook. My copy is a paperback published in 1960, and it has that old book smell. And I love the cover — a repro of a painting titled The Cock and Knife, done in 1947 by Picasso.
There’s much to relish in this little volume. The chapter called “Murder in the Kitchen,” for example:
Food is far too pleasant to combine with horror. All the same, facts, even distasteful facts, must be accepted and we shall see how, before any story of cooking begins, crime is inevitable. That is why cooking is not an entirely agreeable pastime. There is too much that must happen in advance of the actual cooking.
Then, there’s the chapter on servants in France.
When I asked Gertrude Stein how you went about finding one [a “servant”] in Paris and what questions you put to her in your interview with her, she answered that…the proper question to ask was, did she make a good omelette.
The most famous legacy of The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book comes from the chapter “Recipes from Friends.” More precisely from the now hardly-known artist, Brian Gysen, who contributed his instructions for Haschich Fudge (e.g., pot brownies). Apparently, Alice was under deadline to submit her manuscript and wasn’t scrutinizing — much less, testing or tasting — the recipes from the friends she’d solicited. The editors of the first U.S. edition were more exacting though and “extracted” the cannabis-laced fudge before publication, but the British edition included it —and the press took notice.
I’m just glad my 1960 paperback (an Anchor Book Edition, by arrangement with Harper and Brothers) includes the salient details.