Truffles and Haschich

The recipe for haschich fudge that makes Alice B. Toklas’s 1954 cook book notorious may, at first glance, appear out of keeping with the general tenor of the work. What could this set of instructions for a concoction designed to produce “euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter” have to do with the twenty-three recipes for chicken that precede it? Appearing in the chapter “recipes from friends,” Toklas’s haschich fudge seems like a goof, a joke played by its mischievous contributor, the artist Brion Gysin, upon an unsuspecting old lady.

But having read the recipe alongside all the others that fill Toklas’s cook book, I feel positive that it belongs after all. The fudge, which will cause its consumer to feel “ravished by ‘un évanouissement reveillé’” (waking dream?), fits in with a pattern of excess that runs throughout. Toklas celebrates French food as marked by the “influences of the lavish eighteenth century and the extravagances of the nineteenth century.” These are the qualities that set it apart from the functional American approach, disdained by Toklas, of eating food from cans.

It should not be forgotten that Toklas wrote this book while sick with jaundice, laid up in bed and restricted to an invalid’s diet. The book is a nostalgic dream of the sensuous life she once shared with Gertrude Stein – their chefs, their garden in Bilignin, their adventures by car, the meals prepared for and by their artist friends. She revels in memories of meals so luscious they left her speechless.

The twenty-three recipes for chicken bear no resemblance to the anemic white-meat creations found in the pages of dietetic American cookbooks.

“Steamed Chicken Mère Fillioux” instructs readers to fill a chicken with truffles before cooking. If you think that sounds excessive, you should read the recipe for “Young Turkey with Truffles” which begins with poaching 4 cups of whole truffles in a pound of melted pork fat. And if that seems excessive, read the recipe for “Alexandre Dumas Junior’s Françillon Salad” which instructs you to mix 2 lbs of potatoes and 3 quarts of mussels with as many truffles “as the budget permits.” The more the merrier.

Toklas uses the same generous hand when apportioning butter. A single serving of “virgin sauce,” to go with asparagus, begins with 5 tablespoons of butter. “It is something apart,” Toklas comments approvingly. For “Truites en Chemise,” trouts are baked “in enough melted butter to float them.”

Elsewhere Toklas advises rivers of alcohol to enrich the cooking. A “Salad Meli-Melo” of oysters, mussels, shrimp, and lobster, has champagne poured on top for good measure. “Lobster archiduc” has brandy, port, and whiskey. “Chicken sauté aux Ducs de Bourgogne” has 3/4 cup port, 1/2 cup brandy, 1/4 cup whiskey, and 1/4 cup kirsch, for a single bird.

Haschich fudge hardly seems out of place within this orgy of indulgence. And I find it difficult to believe that Toklas, who describes herself as a dedicated smoker of tobacco or any substitute she could get her hands on during wartime rationing (except fig leaves, which had poisoned a friend), would be so unfamiliar with canibus sativa that she would include it unwittingly within her book. The joke was not on her, but on those unimaginative readers who can’t believe such a little old lady would ever be pushing such sensual excess.

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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