Book Review: dark deeds in a kitchen

Actually, “Dark deeds in a Kitchen” is not this book’s title. The book I’m writing about is Alice B. Toklas’ Cookbook. Chapter four is called “Murder in the kitchen” and starts with a description of Alice killing her first fish.

While searching for a totally different book, I accidentally stumbled across hers. Like many people, I presumed Julia Child’s book published in 1961, introduced French Cuisine to the US. Alice’s book, also written to introduce French cuisine to Americans – and others – was published in 1954.

The reason Alice B. Toklas wrote it is quite sad. Had Alice and Gertrude Stein lived now, their partnership might have been legally recognised. This was not the case when Gertrude died. Gertrude did will her estate and their joint art collection to Alice.

However, when the collection became more valuable, Gertrude’s relatives stepped in. While Alice was away, the art collection was removed from her house. From then on, Alice had to depend on friends’ support as well as trying to earn by writing. Her writings include this cookbook.

Chapter four describes how Alice learnt to cook. As she quite rightly mentions: dark deeds are done before any meal is put on a table. It’s one of the many hilarious chapters which make this book far more readable, than Julia Child’s.

The recipes are not only linked to the life Alice and Gertrude shared. It also includes recipes from Alice’s childhood and life before she met Gertrud Stein. So you will find recipes from Alice’s mother, Alice’s friends, various cooks, great chefs, and ordinary people. Some recipes are linked to houses Alice and Gertrude lived in, as well as the two World Wars they lived through.

What makes this book so refreshing is, that each chapter contains anecdotes and stories about people and events. So in chapter three, Alice mentions how she created a dish for Picasso. She expected him to comment, which he did. But his comment was not what Alice expected: “Beautiful, but isn’t this more suitable for Matisse?”

In another chapter, Alice shamelessly describes the machinations Gertrude and she tried to enable them to take over another tenant’s house. There’s also a chapter about Aunt Pauline and Lady Godiva and recipes discovered en route while working for the Red Cross during World War I. Chapter 11 mentions the problems Alice and other cooks faced with food rationing in France during World War II.

Unfortunately, most recipes date from the early 20th century. Don’t know about you, but I don’t see myself using eight or more egg yolks for a sauce, dough, dish, desert. Other recipes take hours, days, or in the case of the sloe gin recipe: seven years.

The number of recipes mentioning truffles as one of the ingredients is staggering. As are the many using lobsters and oysters. The amounts of butter used are also impressive. So many recipes are beyond most people’s budget these days. Most of us will also no longer be comfortable using offal, kidneys, liver, or birds like larks or doves. Especially not, when we have to wring their necks and pluck them ourselves, as Alice had to do.

Do not expect recipes to be arranged neatly in soup, sauce, fish, meat, desserts, etc. per chapter. Recipes are linked to people and situations. So chapter six starts with an anecdote followed by a recipe for Pêches Flambées, another anecdote and the recipe for Poulet Mère Fillioux, another anecdote including Millason, a remark about Perpignan followed by a recipe for Perpignan lobsters, an anecdote about rationing during WWI including a recipe for wild boar, etc. This makes this cookbook such a delight for both gourmets and cooks, as well as for readers like me.

Cooks will need to experiment, for you will not come across exact instructions, measures, heat, weights. One recipe actually demands you to use a silver fork. Alice’s Poulet Sauté aux Ducs de Bourgogne, for example, starts with: cut a nice broiler chicken in six pieces. Brown these with four spoons of butter in a pan above average fire. You get the idea?

Alice’s Dublin Coffee James Joyce, I have known for years as Irish Coffee. Just above it, there is a recipe from a friend of Alice’s. Here is Princess D. de Rohan’s recipe for a hot grog, attributed to Flaubert, while Alice’s remark makes it predate Flaubert:

2 glasses of calvados
1 glass apricot brandy
Heat the mixture above a fire. Slowly add a glass of cream. Do not stir. Originally a 18th century recipe from Auberge du Vieux Puits, Point-Audemer.

Like the above, quite a few recipes are manageable for the starting to average cook. I quite liked the recipes for Quiche de Nancy, Pizza alla Napoletana, a Salade 14 Juillet, and a great many more.

However, among the recipes I will never ever try was one from a friend of Alice’s for … Hashish Fudge! Apparently, it comes from a book by Baudelaire and is subtitled “which anybody can put together on a rainy day”. From the remarks lacing this recipe it’s clear Alice and Gertrude tried it at least once.

Despite this shocking revelation about an Alice I presumed was quite dull and stuffy, I can only strongly recommend her cookbook. It’s a funny and interesting read for non-cooks. It contains very simple to highly challenging and complicated recipes for all cooks.

“The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book”, by Alice B. Toklas, first published 1954, is still available through Amazon: Amazon.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: dark deeds in a kitchen

  1. Hi Kate, was really interested to read your post as coincidentally I’ve just written a post myself about Alice and her amazing cookbook. It really is a delight, as you so well describe.

    • What a coincidence! Have you tried out any of the recipes yet? Most are too difficult for me. I’m currently trying to find out what happened to Gertrude & Alice’s French home they rented – so not their Paris home but the other one where Alice had two kitchen gardens.

      • Hi Kate, No I haven’t tried any of the recipes yet, but hope to before too long. If you’re talking about Bilignin – their country retreat, I believe it’s still owned by the same family that rented it to Gertrude and Alice … this website gives details of a “Gertrude Stein’s France” tour they conduct which takes it in (as well as the Paris residences) – http://www.travelswithteri.com/itinerary/gertrudes-france – sounds wonderful if you were thinking about a trip to France!

      • Hi Anne,
        thanks for that link for I couldn’t find pics of the house and two kitchen-gardens Alice mentions. Will have a look. It certainly might be a nice excuse to visit it one day!
        As for the recipes, think the only one in my leage was the hot grog. 😉
        Still need to try it.
        I really like your blog, so will keep an eye on any other posts about famous writers & their favourite recipes!

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