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Cookbooks 8: Alice B. Toklas

8. Alice B. Toklas. Student houses in the Seventies had a certain air. It was the residual scent of marijuana. Many a kitchen shelf held this book, famous for what the author calls Haschich Fudge. This is a distraction from its true value, but then many things are famous for the wrong reasons. It is astonishing today to read the instruction “A bunch of canibus sativa can be pulverised. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts.” What size bunch does she have in mind? This book is packed with recipes that intimate the bohemian salon world of Alice and her companion Gertrude Stein, Americans living together in Paris between 1907 and 1946. Readers of these two women learn that they frequently turned on meals for guests of all kinds, and legendarily the ritual of Sunday evening when many of the dishes here presented were presented. Gertrude Stein’s experimental writings are a mixed blessing, some people saying unkindly that the best way to read her is with a tray of Haschich Fudge. I remain enchanted by ‘Tender Buttons’ and suchlike language effusions, though my favourite Gertrude are her digressive memoirs-as-they-happen like ‘Wars I Have Seen’ and ‘Paris, France’, objective and quirky accounts of the occupation and liberation. Reading ‘The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book’ is to hear a personal voice that is both practical and charmingly anecdotal. Indeed, not unlike some of Gertrude’s more accessible literature, leaving me to wonder what in Gertrude is Alice, and is there actually even a boundary, in the same way we ponder how much of ‘Ulysses’ comes direct from Nora Barnacle. Like so much of this household’s literature, it purports to be one thing while also being another. Collated in 1953, seven years after Gertrude’s death, the book bubbles with reminiscences of their life together and in so doing is an autobiography in the form of a cookbook, as well as being a salve for grief. Her cookbook aids in joining the dots of their dottiness, given that Gertrude had already written Alice’s autobiography in 1933. The cookbook memoir is served up in Alice’s idiosyncratic and amusingly disingenuous style, which is why it’s worth getting your own copy. Haschich Fudge was first contributed by a friend, it’s how Alice wrote up the dessert that brings it alive. Likewise her digression, in the middle of some of her chicken recipes, on Mushroom Sandwiches, which I copy out as given.

Mushroom sandwiches have been my specialty for years. They were made with mushrooms cooked in butter with a little juice of lemon. After 8 minutes’ cooking, they were removed from heat, chopped and then pounded into a paste in the mortar. Salt, pepper, a pinch of cayenne, and an equal volume of butter were thoroughly amalgamated with them. Well and good. But here is a considerable improvement over them, also called

The method is the same as above up to a certain point. These are the proportions. For ¼ lb. mushrooms cooked in 2 tablespoons of butter add 2 scrambled eggs and 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese and mix well. The recipe ends with: This makes a delicious sandwich which tastes like chicken. A Frenchman can say no more. Which gave me the idea of introducing chicken sandwiches in which chopped and pounded chicken was substituted for the mushrooms. Naturally they were well received.


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