Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Reading. Toklas.

There is much I cannot remember about my college years, but I remember how I found Alice B. Toklas. I was eighteen years old and studying art history, which meant occasional trips to the museum for research. My university had an art museum, perhaps a twenty-minute bus ride from campus. I seem to recall that on weekends there was a long wait between buses. To pass the time I glanced over the titles at the museum bookstore, ignoring heavy art tomes in favor of a smaller paperback lurking somewhere on the shelf. I remember sitting outside under a tree, my butt growing numb (such is the nature of spring in upstate New York), reading through the endless recipes, sprinkled with French words I didn't entirely understand.

I knew who Alice B. Toklas was, the longtime companion of Gertrude Stein (and I must admit that I had first learned of Gertrude Stein when I was eleven and reading Lois Lowry's Anastasia books), but I had never heard of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. First published in 1954, some editions (for, apparently, "legal reasons") are missing the recipe for 'Haschich Fudge.' It is the most disgusting recipe I have ever read, rather like rum balls, only made with pot (what Toklas refers to as canibus sativa, which she suggested you procure and pulverize before mixing it in with the other ingredients) instead of rum. I wonder if anyone, including Toklas herself, has ever actually tried this recipe. It gives a new meaning to one of the ingredients listed, "stoned dates."

It is as much memoir as cookbook, about Toklas and Stein's life in France before, during, after the war (which war, I cannot remember), along with interludes in Spain and America. It is about their shared love of food, the friends they ate with, cooked for, the servants who came in and out of their life, bringing recipes and leaving lasting memories of meals past. There were endless feasts and simple omelettes; haute cuisine and cuisine bonne femme, and more ways of cooking chicken than there are paintings in the Louvre. And then there were the war years, the era of rations and coupons and black-market hams and occasional fortuitous moments of bounty (however fleeting), and the continued deprivation of the lean post-war years. Her writing about those times gave the feeling that during the hungry days memory is enough to sustain you.

I found that in college, memory and literature would have to sustain me during long periods of instant noodles, cafeteria food, frozen pizza, and bad Chinese takeout. I would sit up in bed, hunched over a plate of chicken fingers, and Toklas' words seemed to give those sad strips of fried chicken an a new savour, beyond the sticky goop masquerading as sweet-and-sour sauce. It was not so much that I longed for the food that she described (although who could resist an OMELETTE AURORE, or A HEN WITH GOLDEN EGGS, the eggs formed of mashed potato colored with egg yolks, and, best of all, something called BAVARIAN CREAM PERFECT LOVE), but I longed for the pleasure that Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein (and their friends) seemed to derive from food. In college it was hard to find happiness with sawdust roast turkey and instant mashed potatoes smothered in bland gravy (although waffles for dinner came close), but I would dream of Toklas' dishes, of my mother's cooking at home at the opposite end of the country. Some three thousand miles away.

When I read The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook today I am transported into the past, both Toklas' and my own. It is a curious feeling. That era has passed. There is nothing else left to remind me of that time.

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