I bought my first Gertrude Stein book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, at the late great Smith and Hardwick Bookstore on 20th Street in downtown Birmingham in the ‘70s when I was an undergraduate at Alabama. Smith and Hardwick was one of those amazing bookstores with an outstanding jumble of books on two levels in seeming disarray. It was owned by the Praytor sisters – Virginia and Anna – and by Anna Praytor alone when Virginia died in 1974.
If you were looking for a particular title in the store and couldn’t figure out where it might be in the dusty stacks, one of the Misses Praytor always seemed to know exactly where it was located. Here’s what great locally-owned bookstores were like back then: I was in school in Tuscaloosa and if there was a book I needed I would telephone Miss Anna Praytor in Birmingham. She would mail the book the same day and enclose a handwritten bill and thank you.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) was Stein’s own autobiography told in the voice of Toklas, her long-time companion, secretary, cook, confidante, hostess, and handler. Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967) and Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) met on Toklas’s first day in Paris in 1907 and were never apart until Stein’s death thirty-nine years later. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was a huge hit and led to Stein and Toklas’s triumphant first tour of the U.S. that spanned seven months in 1934 and 1935. Stein captured the experience of the American tour and other events in a 1937 book titled Everybody’s Autobiography. Whatever else Gertrude Stein may have been, she was never modest.
Over the years I have been fascinated with Gertrude Stein and have directed and adapted her plays, delivered papers about her oeuvre and influence, and conducted acting workshops based on the enigmatic short ditties she referred to as “plays.”
And the more I have learned about Stein, the more interested I have become in Toklas and her quirky and ongoing influence. Eugene Walter knew Toklas (of course) in Paris in the ‘50s and “adored [her] because she had this little moustache, and I swear she waxed it.” He says that upon meeting her “Right away you could see cat and monkey” (his two favorite creatures). “She had a logical mind, but she also had the gift of the parenthesis.”
Walter and Toklas exchanged cooking ideas and recipes and it was The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954) that brought Toklas a surge of attention after Stein’s death. The Cookbook is really a fascinating memoir with recipes presented in a witty, earnest, and distinctive voice. In a chapter entitled “Murder in the Kitchen,” Toklas discusses the unpleasant tasks of preparing live animals for the kitchen: “The first victim was a lively carp brought to the kitchen in a covered basket … So quickly to the murder and have it over with.”
As Toklas assesses and deals with the fish she observes:
The carp was dead, killed, assassinated, murdered in the first, second, and third degree. Limp, I fell into a chair, with my hands still unwashed ready for a cigarette, lighted it, and waited for the police to come and take me into custody. After a second cigarette my courage returned and I went to prepare poor Mr Carp for the table.
Later in the same chapter Toklas describes her preparation of “Six white pigeons to be smothered, to be plucked, to be cleaned and all this to be accomplished before Gertrude Stein returned for she didn’t like to see work being done.”
In addition to being very readable, educational, and entertaining, the Cookbook continues to inspire into the 21st Century. A brief passage in Toklas’s chapter entitled “Servants in France” about the hiring of an Indo-Chinese cook named Trac inspired the creation of a beautiful and award-winning 2003 novel, The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong. Truong’s seductive and meditative book explores a fictional Vietnamese cook, Binh, who comes into the Stein-Toklas household.
No doubt the part of the Cookbook which caused the most stir is a recipe for “Haschich Fudge” in a section of the book called “Recipes from Friends.” The marijuana brownie recipe “which anyone could whip up on a rainy day” was given to Toklas by Brion Gysin and is described as “an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR.” The chapter of recipes from friends was inserted to fill the book out and Toklas might have been clueless about what she was presenting with the fudge recipe. Even so, the American publishers left the recipe out of the first American edition but it was included in others and became notorious and sort of a code, especially when the hippie movement of the 1960s took hold.
That recipe is the reason that a fairly insipid and badly dated 1968 Peter Sellers comedy directed by Hy Averback is called I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! Sellers plays “Harold Fine,” a strait-laced attorney who falls in with a group of very stereotypical hippies and is especially enamored of one particular hippie, Nancy, played by Leigh Taylor-Young. Nancy, of course, bakes Alice’s brownie recipe that fuels much of the frolic. The title song, penned by Elmer Bernstein (who was no hippie) and performed by Harpers Bizarre, has the refrain “I love you, Alice B. Toklas / And so does Gertrude Stein.” Other lyrics evoke “Coriander baby elephants singing ‘Silent Night’/ Sweet cinnamon and nutmeg Che Guevara.” (The ladies would be so proud.)
Sly references to Toklas’s fudge recipe had a way of sneaking in to pop culture. In a 1969 episode of the sitcom “Bewitched,” Samantha’s mother Endora is offered a cookie. Endora asks if it’s from an Alice B. Toklas recipe. When she’s told it’s not, Endora says, “… I’ll pass.”
My favorite recipe from the cookbook is “Oeufs Francis Picabia” from the chapter titled “Dishes for Artists.” Here it is:
Break 8 eggs into a bowl and mix them well with a fork, add salt but no pepper. Pour them into a saucepan – yes, a saucepan, no, not a frying pan. Put the saucepan over a very, very low flame, keep turning them with a fork while very slowly adding in very small quantities ½ lb. butter – not a speck less, rather more if you can bring yourself to it. It should take ½ hour to prepare this dish. The eggs of course are not scrambled but with the butter, no substitute admitted, produce a suave consistency that perhaps only gourmets will appreciate.
I am no gourmet, and this recipe is too rich to serve a lot, but I have prepared it and can attest to the fact that it is delicious.
In 1963, needing money, Alice B. Toklas finally got around to writing her own autobiography. It is called What Is Remembered. Even though she outlived Gertrude Stein by over two decades, she chose to end her own life’s story with the death of Gertrude Stein.