Book Club: The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook

Remember last week when I said I was going to make a recipe from this autobiography/cookbook?

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This year’s reissue features much cuter cover art.

I completely lied.

Every single recipe in here is like, “just add enough powdered sugar to make icing” and plays real fast and loose with things like “measurements” and “cook times.” Even with the baking. I looked and looked for something cute to make y’all, but I feel like the recipes were more like guidelines, and while it would have turned out fine, it probably wouldn’t have been much of a recipe to pass on to a friend.

But.

This doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy reading this. Alice B. Toklas, if you don’t know, was the “secretary-companion” (read: same sex partner) of legendary salonniere of the Parisian expatriate colony Gertrude Stein. Here is a photo of them together.

Sorry, Alice and Gertrude AND their poodle. Can't forget the poodle.

Sorry, Alice and Gertrude AND their poodle. Can’t forget the poodle.

They are super-goofy. I read this entire book to myself in the SNL Julia Child voice, because that is just how I imagine she sounded. For reasons unknown, Gertrude Stein (as Alice calls her AT ALL TIMES in print, e.g., “Gertrude Stein and I did X and then Gertrude Stein ate some veal.”) wrote a book called The Autobigraphy of Alice B. Toklas (which I have admittedly not read). It was a work of mostly fiction, but ole Al decided it was autobiography enough and declined to write her memoirs, despite repeated requests.

Again, for reasons unknown, she decided writing a cookbook would be a fine enough thing to do, and thus she did. Like the aforementioned Autobigraphy of…, which isn’t an autobiography, this isn’t a cookbook. It has recipes and such, sure, but it is overwhelmingly her just telling stories about her life with Gertrude Stein and their famous friends.

I’m not going to say I didn’t get irritated with her name-droppiness, because I did, but she tells tons of charming stories about driving around Aunt Pauline and Electra (their trucks), learning how to “murder” her own meat, and fun dinner parties she attended with interesting people. Overall, she seemed like a lady who greatly enjoyed her life and was privileged to meet a ton of fascinating people who considered her fascinating as well.

By all accounts, Alice was a hell of a cook, and some of her recipes sound delightful in execution. A great many are shared from other famouses (fish a la ______ [painter name] and James Joyce’s Irish coffee, for example), and it’s clear she didn’t test these out before including them. If you’ve heard of this book at all, it may be from the “hashish fudge” recipe she inadvertently included in the first edition. She didn’t really know what marijuana was, or that it was a drug, and, honestly? The fudge recipe, pot aside, looks completely vile and almost inedible. Proceed with caution re: the recipes that have come from other sources.

My academic background is in the study of food cultures, and when writing, I often use cookbooks as a source of insight into the way people live(d). This book does just that. I feel like I have a great feel for the food available to civilians (even well-to-do ones!) during WWI, and an understanding of how Stein and Toklas used food to connect with disparate people across interests, languages, time, and space. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, you’ll love it.

Anyway, have you read this? What did you think? Would you dare get wild with any of her recipes? Have you read cookbooks like this, too?

Next week, I’m going to read this. Won’t you please join me?

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