The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book
By Alice B. Toklas
Penguin Books, 1961
336 pages, prices vary
My goal this week was to review a cookbook that would tie-in with this month’s Alvah Bessie theme. Since Alvah was so enchanted by Spain, I thought a Spanish cookbook would make sense. Unfortunately, none of my Spanish cookbooks are very impressive or exciting to review. So I was in a bit of a quandary in figuring what today’s selection for “What’s Cookin'” would be and then I came across a little gem that’s been in the family since I was born.
I discovered The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book during my “Lost Generation” phase. This was a time when I wanted to escape to Paris and live the life boheme (in relative comfort, of course), writing, eating, and enjoying everything Paris had to offer a thirteen year-old girl.
Now, in all honesty, I have to admit that I found Ms. Toklas very intriguing not so much for her great gastronomic skills, but because of her alternative lifestyle with Gertrude Stein. Remember, I was thirteen and curious.
The recipes (or its variations, including the famous Hashish Brownies) in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book can easily found in other top-notch cooks books, but what’s remarkable about this little book are Ms. Toklas autobiographical anecdotes that are generously sprinkled throughout. In the section “Dishes for Artists”she writes of the time she prepared a striped bass for Picasso, which she decorated for his amusement:
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 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 me.
In “Beautiful Soup” she writes of the finer points and variations of the Spanish gazpacho and then goes on to provide four different recipes from Malaga, Segovia, Sevilla,and Cordoba, along with the Polish, Greek, and Turkish variations of this cold soup.
Food historians might have a special interest in the chapter titled, “Food in the United States in 1934 and 1935. Toklas writes of Stein’s concern about food in America and whether it would be “to her taste.” Here, Toklas describes the different cities and restaurants and all the delicious meals that surpassed both their expectations.
The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book provides readers with a fascinating and entertaininglook at the eating habits and tastes of two American expatriates who broke bread with Europe’s and America’s leading artists. It’s a worthwhile read, if not for the recipes, but for Toklas’ observations.