Review: ‘Alice B. Toklas Cookbook’

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ALICE B. TOKLAS’S COOKBOOK by Alice B. Toklas | Review first published on November 21, 1954


Of a group of recipes in this book, Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s lifelong companion, says: “…. They do not have the particularity of being distinctive either. This and other equally distinctive phrases certainly give the book a distinction, but they are not its only charms.

In a chapter entitled “Servants in France”, we meet ten dozen of cleaning ladies which Miss Toklas enjoyed or suffered during the 45 years of her residence in this country, from Hélène, who thought that all Americans were dentists, to Jeanne, who had to take days off, three at a time , for shopping but never bought anything. Elsewhere we meet Picasso and Picabia. At Picasso, Miss Toklas served an original fish: sea bass poached in white wine and decorated with red mayonnaise, egg yolk and truffles. Picasso was enchanted by her beauty but thought it should have been in honor of Matisse. Later we learn how Virgil Thomson makes shad egg mousse and how Cecil Beaton makes apple pudding; and we are told categorically: “This is the best way to cook frog legs”.

Throughout the book are mentions of Gertrude Stein – anecdotes from Stein, her statements about food and cooking, her reactions to people and things. There are interesting war notes of the ploys employed by the two ladies to keep their pantry stocked during the Occupation in France, there is a certainty of the Allied victory – and, when that victory was a reality, an account of the delicacies they serve to American troops, including a truly mouth-watering recipe for “liberation fruit cake”. There are also echoes of Steinism in Miss Toklas’ own book. In a chapter titled “Little-Known French Dishes Suitable for American and British Cuisines,” an omelet recipe requires four tablespoons of diced truffles and one for a roasted young turkey requires four cups of whole truffles. Suitable for American kitchens? Elsewhere, a turtle soup recipe begins: “Soak ½ pound of sun-dried turtle meat in cold water for four days, changing the water daily.”

Miss Toklas approves of “a man of the family” who oversees or even cooks a dish because “it raises the standard of home cooking”. Living so long in France is, I guess, an acceptable excuse for such blatantly anti-American advice, but doesn’t Miss Toklas want American housewives to buy her book?

They will miss something if they don’t. Whether or not you care about the commentary bead and the episode Miss Toklas strung her pearls on, the recipes, the pearls themselves, have “the particularity of being distinctive.” It takes a lot of nerve to review a cookbook.

In a chapter titled “Murder in the Kitchen”, says Miss Toklas, “The only way to learn to cook is to cook”; and, likewise, the only way to judge a recipe is to try it. Of the 350+ recipes in this book, I had already known and tried no more than a dozen exactly as directed, and now I’ve tried two more – one for fried oysters (excellent) and one for fried oysters. sautéed youngsters, which requires onion juice, hot broth and a tablespoon of brandy (very fine). So am I really qualified to review the book?

Well who is? With any new cookbook claiming to make the distinction, the test for the reviewer may not be whether the majority of recipes are absolutely good, as it would take them six months and several thousand dollars to figure it out, but if they do. are good enough to try. This book passes that test with a good mark. I listed 38 of his recipes for as early a try as possible, and I’m pretty finicky. At least a third of the 350 are worth sampling. – Rex Stout

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