Something to Read: The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book

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I can be a bit of a pain to travel with, because I don’t care so much about seeing sights or sites and just want to get to the bookstore. In San Francisco, the first time, City Lights Bookstore was my first and most important To Do, and I went there just about first thing on the very first day. I nearly blew my budget that morning, and bought so many books that it was barely noon by the time the plastic bag I had to lug them around in was stretched and torn. We were a long way from our motel room, so I dragged that bag all over the city, my hands sweating against the plastic and the bag slipping constantly out of my grip.

There must be a lesson in that experience, but I haven’t learned it.

In Paris, Grace and I had different interests – her, art; me, books and ice cream – so we would go our separate ways in the morning and then meet again later on, around mealtime. One day, I spent almost an entire afternoon in Shakespeare & Co., sitting in a tattered red armchair upstairs, reading tattered old books and imagining just staying in France forever. That morning, I had gone to Père Lachaise Cemetery to see Gertrude Stein’s and Oscar Wilde’s graves, and was sort of sad to find that Alice B. Toklas’ headstone didn’t seem to bear her name. I made a mental note – if I ever become a Very Important Writer – to let Nick have his own headstone (beside my monument) with his own name on it. It is the least my estate could do.

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Anyway, when I made it to Shakespeare & Co., the first book that caught my eye was Murder in the Kitchen, an excerpt from The Alice B. Toklas Cook BookI bought it, and then when I got back to Vancouver bought the full cookbook at the bookstore close to home.

Alice was and still is wonderful, and you cannot read her without feeling at the end that you have come to know her personally. She writes about France during the first world war in studied detail, and many of her recipes are simple and restrained, the sort of unfussy stuff we live for now. The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book is a cookbook only in a loose sense; it’s much more literary, a piece of memoir so compelling that the recipes almost play the role of photographs, giving you a sensual impression of having been where Alice has gone. You really do tour France with Alice, driving away from Paris and through the country in Aunt Pauline, Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein’s Ford, named for Stein’s Aunt Pauline, who “always behaved admirably in emergencies and behaved fairly well most times if she was flattered.”

This is French cookery that pre-dates Julia Child, and the recipes range from the delicate and fancy – read Murder in the Kitchen for her struggle to prepare stuffed carp for Picasso – to the rustic and comforting, like the one for “Soup of Shallots and Cheese,” which calls for shallots cooked in butter with broth and a dribble of cream, topped with toast and melted cheese. I want to eat that every day of my life. Don’t you?

There are gems throughout the book, and one of these is for “a friend’s” hash fudge, which I read with the kind of excitement you might feel upon learning that your grandparents were way cooler than your parents gave them credit for. Hash fudge! In a book written in the 1950s! I mean, I know intellectually that was a thing that existed then, but still.

“It is the food of Paradise – of Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises: it might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the FAR. In Morocco it is thought to be good for warding off the common cold in damp winter weather and is, indeed, more effective if taken with large quantities of hot mint tea. Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter, ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Saint Teresa did, you can do better if you can bear to be ravished by ‘un évanouissement révaillé’.” (Page 259.)

Don’t you want to join that Bridge Club? I have no idea where one might obtain the secret ingredient (I am an old lady before my time, I suppose, and tragically, perpetually un-hip), but I’m sharing the recipe with you anyway. Maybe you have some adult grand-kids you need to shock and awe? Alice writes that this is something “anyone could whip up on a rainy day,” so there you go.

Alice B. Toklas’ Haschich Fudge

  • 1 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 1 whole nutmeg
  • 4 “average” sticks of cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. coriander seeds
  • Handful pitted dates
  • Handful dried figs
  • Handful shelled almonds
  • A bunch of canibus sativa (in North America, Alice advises that you might find canibus indica instead and that it will work fine for these purposes)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 to 2 tbsp. butter (“a big pat of butter”)

Using a mortar and pestle (or a coffee or spice grinder if you’re lazy or you remember it’s the future), grind up your peppercorns, nutmeg, cinnamon and coriander seeds. It might be nice to toast these in a pan over medium heat first? Use your judgment.

Finely chop your dates, figs and almonds, and mix them together (this would go faster with a food processor).

Dissolve the sugar in the butter. The instructions here aren’t clear, but what you’d be going for is a bit of a caramel; you want the sugar to turn liquid, which is best done in a heavy-bottomed pot, such as enameled cast iron, over medium-high heat. Let the sugar melt before stirring. For optimal flavour, allow the sugar to cook until bubbling and golden.

Pulverize your canibus sativa (or indica), and knead it and the spices into your dried fruit/nut mixture (again, the food processor is probably best for this). Add your sugar/butter caramel mixture, and mix until combined.

Press the mixture into a pan, and cut into pieces (or roll into balls) about the size of a walnut.

To serve, Alice advises that you eat this with care, and that two pieces should be quite sufficient.

If you make this, let me know. It sounds like a high-fibre good time, though it might just make one sleepy and hungry for nachos.

And read Alice’s book. It’s a good one.

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