by  Gary Michael Dault

Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967) had spent most of her life as companion, lover and wife to writer Gertrude Stein.  Although Gertrude had left her valuable art collection (Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Gris, etc.) to Alice when she died in 1946, Alice—unwilling to break up the famous, million-dollar collection—needed to make some money on her own—and as quickly as possible.  

In 1955, when she was seventy-five, she decided to produce a cookbook to help defray her expenses, finishing it in four months with “no telephone calls and no door bells answered.”  The book gave her a ton of trouble.  It even impinged upon her health, necessitating her going on a special diet which, as she complained to friends, resulted in her continually “bending over an imaginary stove.”  Her now monastic task became a matter of writing about food as lavishly and seductively as she could—but never to eat it.

The resulting rich and forbidding Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is so ornate in its exotic ingredients and procedures in the kitchen that for most of us, the book is less likely to take its place as a working guide to usable cuisine as it is to function as an armchair tour of fabulous meals, arcane restaurants and unimaginatively sublime, unattainable dishes never to be visited in person.  Given the often food-abstemious days many of us actually live now, Alice’s escapist cookbook becomes an almost pornographic adventure for the would-be licentious palette.  And frankly, you can gain weight just by reading it.

Alice’s favourite ingredients seemed to be butter and heavy cream.  Let’s begin with an easy dessert.  This is the way, for example, to make “Nora’s Ice-Cream”: “1 quart of whipped cream sweetened with 3/4 cup icing sugar.  Add 1 ¼ cups raspberry jelly slightly melted.  Fold in the beaten whites of 5 eggs.  Freeze.”

Here’s a homey dinner you whip up anytime you have a leg of mutton on hand and nothing pressing to do for a stretch:  The recipe is simply identified as “The Seven-Hour Leg of Mutton.”  This is what you do: “In an earthenware pot place the rind of bacon fat cut in small pieces.  Interlard a leg of mutton with ham, garlic and lard.  Put your leg of mutton into the pot with salt, pepper, 2 large onions, 3 glasses of water, I glass white wine.  Cover the pot with a plate and paste paper around the pot and the plate. In the plate pour some wine and allow it to simmer for 7 hours.”  Okay.

Here is Alice’s “Salad Cancalaise”.  It begins with beguiling simplicity and then quickly gets tougher: “For each serving take 1 leaf of lettuce; on this place 3 tablespoons diced potato mixed with 1 teaspoon mayonnaise.  On this place 3 poached oysters drained and placed on linen cloth to dry, them mixed with oil, lemon juice and pepper.  On the oysters place a thin slice of truffle.  Place the lettuce leaves and their garnishings on a round dish in a circle with one in the centre.”  Nice, except that we’re all out of oysters and truffles right at the moment.

But I love Alice and her heavenly cookbook.  Even if I’m not going to attempt “Ray with Black Butter” or “Salt Codfish a la Monegasque” or “chicken in Half Mourning” or “Mimosa Soup” anytime soon.
My edition of the book was published in London by the Folio Society in 1993.  It features nice, fluttery drawings by Natacha Ledwidge, some of which are reproduced here.



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