“One day when Picasso was to lunch with us…”
When former Gourmet Magazine editor Ruth Reichl was asked to list her 5 favorite food books a while back, she responded that they were AJ Liebling’s Between Meals, MFK Fisher’s The Art of Eating, Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, Pelligrini’s An Unprejudiced Palate and The Alice B Toklas Cookbook –– yes, The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book.
It’s a great book –– and not just because of those infamous brownies that have made it one of the best selling cookbooks ever. Hers is one of those cookbooks that inhabit the rarified atmosphere of the highest plateau of the genre. She is a great storyteller with great stories to tell –– plying us with her tempting recipes is frosting on an already great cake. Let’s face it, don’t you want to eat like Hemingway and Picasso?
About her brownies –– in fact, they were not really hers but a recipe shared with her by the polymathic genius Brion Gysin and they were not brownies at all, rather they were canibus-spiked, spicy fruit-nut “ Haschich Fudge” candies. They are even more scrumptious when imbibed with Toklas description: “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 D.A.R. . 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 completely expected."
"Almost anything Saint Theresa did, you can do better if you can bear to be ravished by ‘un évanouissement reveillé’[swooning dream?] ”
I bet that got you to sit up and smile. The whole book is full of the charm of a mythic lost world of meals shared with practically every genius who every traipsed through Paris –– writers, artists and intellectuals all stopped at their salon at 27 rue de Fleurus. They stopped to see Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas and most of them stayed to dinner (and left masterpieces in gratitude).
This is extraordinary for so many reasons. Stein was not rich, she was certainly not beautiful, their home was not magnificent (even if the art on the walls was). She was in love with Toklas and they lived together happily as man and wife for 40–odd years. Still, everyone came to them and mostly loved them, sometimes fought with them, were nurtured by them and were often supported in small ways by Stein who bought and bought to keep artists alive and fed –– they were fed at rue de Fleurus, very well fed body and soul.
MFK Fisher said “Miss Toklas has been an integral part of my life (sensate, thinking, sensuous, spiritual) since I was in adolescence.” But more than that, her writing “would feed my soul abundantly if I could find no other nourishment, just as it would make me smile in the midst of sadness, and feel braver if I risked faltering. It is a good book “abundantly satisfying, imagination being as lively as it is….” ”
Alice’s cookbook isn’t just about recipes, Reichl notes …”it’s one of these books that’s about appreciating life, eating everything and living with the seasons. As a kid, when I read it, I thought, “Why isn’t my life more like this?”
1954 1st Edition
The formula for the book is straight forward even if the content is deliciously eccentric. There are chapters on homecooked French food, American Food (that was eaten on a 1934 literary tour of American cities and included Wild Rice and Oysters Rockefeller). There are “Treasures” like Omelette in an Overcoat and Mutton in a Dressing Gown and “Little-known French Dishes” like Chicken in Half Mourning and Frog’s Legs á la Parisienne. These are delightful to be sure, but then there are the chapter titles like “Murder in the Kitchen”.
In “Murder in the Kitchen” you find actual dispatching of finned and feathered creatures and plotted (but not executed) murders of a succession of unpleasant kitchen personnel at rue de Fleurus. An exception to the usual vile cadre of chefly monsters would be the tenure of Frederich and his Viennese pastries that ended when he ran away with a devil woman (he explained his madness by saying he came from the same village as Hitler and everyone was crazy there). A very curious assertion to be sure, but his pastries were divine and so are the recipes for Sacher Torte and Linser Torte (he had worked at Hotel Sacher’s Restaurant in Vienna)!
David Douglas Duncan photograph of Picasso
“Dishes for Artists” is where Toklas describes the mayonnaise enrobed wine-poached bass she made for a lunch with Picasso. It was decorated with red and regular mayonnaise (the red comes from tomato puree) and designs of grated egg, truffles and herbs. Picasso was impressed –– even if he felt it was more to the style of Matisse than Picasso!
One of the last chapters is “Recipes from Friends” and you can imagine what friends there were. So many names are gone and untraceable that once had been familiar. But others like Cecil Beaton and Virgil Thomson , the notorious Mercedes da Acosta, Pierre Balmain, Sir Francia Rose and Carl van Vechten were among the dozens of friends represented.
The book is so much fun, that I am breaking up the post into 2 parts. This week with a brilliant salad from Stein/Toklas pal Mary Oliver and next, Toklas’ famous eggs in a recipe given her by painter Francis Picabia –– the buttery eggs of the gods that have lured many to the brink of cholesterol shock. Ms Reichl swoons over them. Still on an egg roll, I may do one more of her egg recipes for you, they are terribly good.
The recipe for the July 14th Salad appealed to me because of the use of the nasturtiums in the salad –– I love the taste of them. After having gone gardenless for a few years, I now have a small potted garden of herbs and edible flowers and have been rejoicing in a culinary way by using them as often as I can without critically denuding my stock. You might have noticed that I have been using a lot of flowers lately in my dishes –– now you know why! This time I was thwarted by Mother Nature. As I was all ready to go with the recipe, there was a bizarre rainstorm that shredded my nasturtium flowers. Were that not the case, there would have been more in the photos of the dish and that’s how I would recommend you make it. The pepperiness of the flowers (especially the spent flower buds) are fabulous in the salad. I used the not very pretty but delicious flowers on mine after the photos and loved it.
14th of July Salad from Mary Oliver for 4
1-2 c mayonnaise (store-bought or homemade*)
2 T capers chopped (or more to taste)
¼ c dill pickles chopped (sweet or sour – to your taste)
1 lb boneless cooked white fish cut in chunks (I used monk fish, you can use cod or sole or your favorite mild white-fleshed fish)
1 large cucumber, sliced thinly
1 cup well packed nasturtium leaves plus more for garnish
¼ c olive oil
1/3 c tarragon vinegar
1 large garlic clove, minced or pressed in a garlic press
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup or more nasturtium flowers
a few chives chopped and some left whole for garnish.
Combine the mayonnaise and the capers and pickles. Toss the fish into the mayonnaise and coat the fish well. Refrigerate
Put the oil, vinegar, garlic and salt and pepper in a jar with a lid and shake for a few moments (or whisk like mad). Pour this over the cucumbers and nasturtium leaves and let sit for a few moments.
To serve, place the cucumbers/nasturtium mix on a plate, top with the fish and garnish with extra nasturtium leaves and lots of flowers.
Mayonnaise ( you can double this if you want the full amount)
1 egg yolk
2 t lemon juice to start
1 t water
½ - 1 c olive oil
pinch of dry mustard (optional)
pinch of paprika (optional)
more lemon juice to taste
Whisk the lemon and water with the egg yolk. Begin adding the oil a drip or 2 at a time (I used an old Cuisinart pusher with the drip hole… worked like a charm). Keep whisking madly until it begins to look like stiff store-bought mayo and they you can add the rest of the oil a little more quickly. I used less oil since I wanted a stiff mayonnaise. The mustard and paprika are added as per Toklas… this is how she made mayonnaise.
Toklas original recipe:
Toklas original recipe:
"To a pint of mayonnaise add capers and chopped dill pickles. Mix well with 1 lb boned white fish. Serve with a salad of nasturtium leaves and cucumbers with a dressing of olive oil and garlic mixed with tarragon vinegar. Garnish dish with nasturtium leaves and orange and red nasturtiums.
With this should be served chilled chives, or a cider cup with raspberries and cucumber rinds."