The Auto-biography of Alice B. Toklas

The charm of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Gertrude Stein’s tongue-in-cheek “memoir” of her partner, lies for most readers in its intimate portrayal of Parisian artistic life during the first decades of the twentieth century. The informality of the narrative, a conversational slew of anecdotes featuring the most famous names of twentieth-century arts and letters – Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among hundreds more – allows the reader to imagine herself among the crowd. And the character of Toklas serves as the perfect avatar for the reader since she seems to stand always just outside the charmed circle, reporting on the witty repartee of her subjects without taking part herself.

But Toklas is not simply a transparent lens used to focus light on the “genius” of those around her. Stein’s minimalist narrative style drops clues to the character of the narrator. Toklas, as Stein has her describe herself in the book’s penultimate paragraph, is “a pretty good housekeeper.” And being such, she returns again and again throughout the book to food as both subject and metaphor. While others at the table may have been battling for the best bon mot, Toklas it appears was taking notes on the meal. “I do inevitably take my comparisons from the kitchen because I like food and cooking and know something about it,” Toklas explains.

Of course, judging from her photos, Stein herself had a hearty appetite, and the observations she ascribes to Toklas may just as well have been her own. (At one point, “Toklas” describes “Stein’s” memories of a meal, “she also remembers the bowl of soup with French bread for breakfast and she also remembers that they had mutton and spinach for lunch.”) As I begin reading my next book, The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book – authored by Toklas herself – it will be interesting to compare the approach to food presented in each. But for now, a couple of choice cuts from the Autobiography.

Toklas comments at length on the cooking of a longtime servant at 27 rue de fleurus, Hélène. “She was a most excellent cook and she made a very good soufflé.” From an American perspective, what dish could better epitomize the heights achieved by French cooking? But Toklas is amused that Hélène can punish as well as give pleasure with her meals. When Hélène becomes annoyed by Henri Matisse’s impositions on the household’s hospitality, she announces that she “will not make [him] an omelette but fry the eggs. It takes the same number of eggs and the same amount of butter but it shows less respect, and he will understand.” The American must stand in awe at the ability of the French to communicate such finely calibrated insults through the plate.

In France, Toklas reports, the people show their feelings through eating. The amount of bread consumed is directly proportional to the happiness of a party, “because they cannot eat and drink without bread and we had to send out twice for bread so they were happy.”

Despite Hélène’s antipathy toward Matisse, Toklas thinks highly of him for “he liked cooking and eating as a Frenchman should” and his wife also gains praise for being “an excellent cook and provider.” She singles out a particular dish for praise: “jugged hare prepared by Madame Matisse in the fashion of Perpignan was something quite apart.” It seems Toklas enjoyed this meal as much as Stein fancied Henri’s “Femme au Chapeau.”

Toklas is not just an appreciator of French food, but thoroughly competent in the kitchen as well. When Picasso throws a feast for Henri Rousseau and the food ordered by his lover Fernande does not arrive, Toklas takes over and races around Montmartre purchasing the necessary supplies.

“I like cooking, I am an extremely good five-minute cook,” Toklas explains modestly. From what I’ve heard, the recipes in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book require far more than five minutes to prepare. It’s time to find out.

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

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