With over 200 recipes, Aromas and Flavors of Past and Present is as much a cookbook for the contemplative cook as for the practical cook. It showcases the talents of Alice B. Toklas– intellectual, epicure and life-long companion of Gertrude Stein– and Poppy Cannon, the food editor of the Ladies Home Journal and House Beautiful, both of whom were ahead of their time in creating cookbooks about food, menus, friends and memories.
Alice Babette Toklas was born in San Francisco in 1877, the first and only daughter of Polish immigrants who prospered during the California Gold Rush (1848-1855). Her mother died shortly after her 20th birthday, leaving Alice to care for her father and assorted male relatives. After a chance encounter with Michael Stein, Gertrude’s brother, Alice left everything behind and followed him and his wife to France in 1906, where the Parisian avant-garde life of the 1920s beckoned. It was a decision that would change hers and Gertrude’s life forever.
Although Alice and Gertrude grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco, California, a stone’s throw from each other, they didn’t actually meet until 1907 during Alice’s adventure to Paris, where Gertrude had already been living with her other brother, Leo. Alice and Gertrude quickly became friends and then lovers, sharing their lives for the next 39 years. They agreed that a life worth living needed to include the company of artists and writers, plenty of good food and a general refusal to do the things they didn’t like– “…like learning to drive in reverse.”
With the publication in 1933 of Gertrude’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a fictional autobiography, both women became celebrities. Alice was petite with large, dark eyes and a downy mustache on her upper lip. She adored flamboyant hats, gypsy earrings and impeccably-tailored clothes. While Gertrude presided over her remarkable salon of writers and artists such as Hemingway, Matisse and Picasso, Alice presided over the kitchen, supervising servants, collecting recipes (which she kept in a large box under her bed, and which survived the German occupation of France) and typing Gertrude’s manuscripts. Gertrude died in 1946, while Alice lived another 21 years without her, finally passing in 1967. They are buried together at Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. (Read The New York Times obituary here.)
The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook was published in 1954 and written in her own words. It’s a wonderful collection of recipes and the stories behind them from her avant-garde years. Her most famous recipe, sadly the only one for which she has been remembered for, was actually a recipe from the artist, Brion Gysin, and were not brownies at all, but spiced fruit and nut balls:
“This 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 DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution). In Morocco, it is thought to be good for warding off the common cold and 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 Theresa did, you can do better if you can bear to be ravished by un évanouissement reveillé (evanescent dream).
Take 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverized in a mortar. About a handful each of stoned dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts: chop these and mix them together. A bunch of Cannabis sativa can be pulverized. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts, kneaded together. About a cup of sugar dissolved in a big pat of butter. Rolled into a cake and cut into pieces or made into balls about the size of a walnut, it should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient.
Obtaining the Cannabis may present certain difficulties, but the variety known as Cannabis sativa grows as a common weed, often unrecognized, everywhere in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa; besides being cultivated as a crop for the manufacture of rope. In the Americas, while often discouraged, its cousin, called Cannabis indica, has been observed even in city window boxes. It should be picked and dried as soon as it has gone to seed and while the plant is still green.”
In 1958 Alice allowed the publication of Aromas and Flavors of Past and Present, written under the guidance of Poppy Cannon, even though Alice didn’t approve of its heavy annotations. The recipes appear just as she wrote them, and with Ms. Cannon’s finesse, are definitely much easier to understand. Alice’s sharp, analytical mind is delightfully contrasted with her poetic naming of recipes, such as Quo Vadis Cake, Perfumed Goose, and the Ribbons of Sarah Bernhardt. She held nothing but disdain and suspicion for frozen food, but did succumb to the marvels of the electric blender, which I myself, have found to be very handy in impressing dinner guests with an authentic chocolate mouse. I just throw one cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips and one egg into a blender while slowly streaming in 1 cup of heavy whipping cream heated to just boiling, turn the blender on high, and pour the mixture into individual ramekins and chill. And, if you’re looking for a holiday dish sure to please everyone’s palette, try Alice’s Green Mashed Potatoes:
Green Mashed Potatoes
“For 4 people bake 4 large potatoes for 40 minutes. Peel them and place them in the blender at the lowest speed with 4 tablespoons of soft butter, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 cup of light cream, 1/4 cup parsley, 1/2 cup watercress leaves and 2 tablespoons basil leaves. When well mixed, removed from blender, heat and serve very hot.”
If you are fortunate to find a copy of Aromas and Flavors of Past and Present, or receive it as a gift, as I did, cherish it. Alice B. Toklas’s philosophy holds true today and bears repeating:
“Use only the best of everything. If the budget is restricted, restrict the menu to what the budget affords… Your appreciation and appetite will increase. You will add to the pleasure of your guests… each morsel must be perfect of its kind, chosen and prepared with love, understanding an erudition.”