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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein & Gardening in France

 The book is also interesting for Alice’s explanation of the differing French and American culinary views.  Noting the French pride in their culinary history, she notes:
"We foreigners living in France respect and appreciate this point of view but deplore their too strict observance of a tradition which will not admit the slightest deviation in a seasoning or the suppression of a single ingredient.  For example, a dish as simple as a potato salad must be serve surrounded by chicory. To serve it with any other green is inconceivable." 
How many times have I encountered this strict observance - "pas mal, but the dish my dear Deborah is made with chervil, not tarragon."   As Alice would say, "horror of horrors!"  
Illustration by Sir Francis Rose

“For fourteen successive years the gardens at Bilignin were my joy, working in them during the summers and planning and dreaming of them during the winters....The first gathering of the garden in May of salads, radishes and herbs made me feel like a mother about her baby--how could anything so beautiful be mine.  And this emotion of wonder filled me for each vegetable as it was gathered every year.   There is nothing that is comparable to it, as satisfactory or as thrilling, as gathering the vegetables one has grown.”

The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book
“The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook” is a great read, albeit not necessarily for the recipes.  Few of us can afford to make these rich dishes - say a luncheon salad that requires a lobster, truffles, several partridges and a turkey, among other ingredients.   However, the book is fascinating to read as a memoir of her travels with Gertrude Stein, the garden she tended in Bilignin “surrounded by mountains and not far from the French Alps” and the meals prepared for the constant flow of visitors.   She once spent hours poaching and decorating a striped bass with colorful cutouts of truffles and fine herbs, which she named “Bass for Picasso.”  Whilst he admired the beauty of her design, the ever critical Picasso remarked that the design was more in line with that of Matisse than his own.  

Photograph by David Douglas Duncan.  This is not Alice's striped bass!

There is a rare recording of Alice reading from her cookbook, including an explanation of the origin of her famous canabis brownies at Pacific Archive.  Alice explains that the American publisher decided to omit the recipe after being advised by Washington that “you can do anything you want with canabis but eat it.”  

I was prompted to read Alice’s memoir by two exhibits about Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and the Stein art collection.  The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is presenting “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde.”  The Contemporary Jewish Museum is presenting “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories,” which includes photographs and videos, exploring her life from World War I through World War II.

P.S. Kathy Bates does a great impression as Gertrude Stein in Woody Allen's new film, "Midnight in Paris."

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