Maybe it is because I just dined in a Manhattan restaurant in a historic building with a soaring ceiling and fresh yellow and white décor. It reminded me of a famous Parisian eating place, the Angelina Tearoom on the Rue de Rivoli, that is of a different vintage but also boasts a high ceiling, yellow and white décor and kitchy chandeliers – as well as the best hot chocolate in the world and its famous Mont Blanc pastry, made with cords of chestnut cream. Or maybe it’s because on Sunday we sat in the kitchen and ate perfect soft boiled eggs in egg cups with buttered toast. In any case, I’ve been reading Alice B. Toklas’ Aromas and Flavors of Past and Present, and her recipes, especially those for eggs, speak to me.
I like Aromas and Flavors, published in 1958, as much as The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954), which was her culinary triumph as well as a memoir of her life with Stein and Picasso and Matisse and all the others at the Rue de Fleurus in the first third of the Twentieth Century. The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook has the seminal sociological goods, but Aromas simply and directly delivers the recipes. It cuts to the chase, an exquisite approach to cuisine that seems awfully foreign today.
“I refuse to believe that trading recipes is silly,” wrote Barbara Grizzuti Harriso. “Tunafish casserole is at least as real as corporate stock.”
Not that she, whose culinary prowess sustained Gertrude Stein’s mind and girth, would ever make tuna casserole. But what Toklas left us is certainly real.
On to eggs. Perhaps because she lived through food shortages during both wars, the simplest preparations predominate, and servings are diminutive. Toklas’ editor, Poppy Cannon, marginally comments that Alice would serve the following dish, “Eggs Prepared in the Creuse,” “as a first course, in which case only 1 eggg is allowed for each person.”
Beat the whites of 8 eggs until very stiff, seasoning them with ½ tsp salt and ¼ tsp pepper. Place them in the bottom of a well-buttered fireproof dish, flattening the surface with a moist spatula. Make 8 hollows in which you place the yolks of the eggs. Cover each yolk with 1 tablespoon cream. Sprinkle the whites of the eggs with ¾ cup of grated Swiss cheese. Place in 450 degree oven for 8 minutes and serve piping hot.
Of course Alice didn’t only prepare eggs. In The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook she writes about the proper way to kill pigeons for cooking. After the First World War, she says, the concierge at Rue de Fleurus brought her a gift sent by a friend in the country: “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. If only I had the courage the two hours before her return would easily suffice. A large cup of strong black coffee would help.”
She continues, “It was a most unpleasant experience, though as I laid out one by one the sweet young corpses there was no denying one could become accustomed to murdering.” The result, her recipe for Braised Pigeons on Croutons, follows, consisting of stewing morsels of the poultry with salt pork and mushrooms in butter and Madeira.
I imagine it satisfied Gertrude, who was known for not being able to boil an egg.
The marijuana brownies Toklas became famous for were actually from the recipe provided by a friend, Brion Gysin. Toklas writes, “anyone could whip up [Haschich Fudge] on a rainy day,” and continues
“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. 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 Theresa did, you can do better if you can bear to the ravished by “un évanouissement reveillé”.
“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 part 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.”