Jimmie the Barman, who poured the drinks at many of the best-known Lost Generation drinking holes including the Dingo, the Falstaff, and the Trois et As, once observed that it was “remarkable that the leaders and organizers of Montparnasse were largely women.”
Poets like Mina Loy, artists like Nina Hamnett, writers like Djuna Barnes, editors like Sylvia Beach, socialites like Nancy Cunard, muses like Kiki, and party girls like Flossie Martin, crowded the café terraces of Montparnasse in the 1920s. In previous generations, working-class girls and working girls had flocked to the city’s nightlife. But after World War I, as never before, bohemian women declared their independence from traditional social conventions by downing drinks, smoking cigarettes, romancing lovers, and making art in public view.
They also enjoyed taking meals in public, at the city’s many inexpensive restaurants. Elsewhere I’ve written about the voracious appetites that Gwen Le Gallienne, Yvette Ledoux, and Caridad de Laberdesque, displayed during multi-course meals at Chez Rosalie, run by a former model of Modigliani, and Salto’s, an Italian restaurant known for its massive portions. Eating at restaurants symbolized the liberated woman’s freedom from the prison of the kitchen. They exchanged pots and pans, the instruments of repression, for the pen and paintbrush.
(The blog kitchen flânerie discusses feminism, cooking, and the 1975 film “Semiotics of the Kitchen” here).
But for other bohemian women, the kitchen, far from a prison, could be a place for taking pleasure. These women felt, in Kay Boyle’s words, a “rapture for cooking,” which they indulged with the same greediness that they took lovers.
In 1968, Boyle, a modernist writer best known for her short stories, edited and reprinted Being Geniuses Together, her friend Robert McAlmon’s memoir of 1920s Paris, which she intermixed with alternating chapters recalling her own experiences of the era. True to the stories told about him, McAlmon, of “my generation doesn’t eat supper!” fame, expresses a preference in his chapters for taking his calories in liquid form. “I did not eat, but drank armagnac,” McAlmon recollects of a St. Patrick’s Day party that James Joyce organized at the Trianon. It was a striking choice considering that the Trianon offered a luxurious menu far grander than the simple fare typical at brasseries like Rosalie or Salto’s. Boyle had the chance to appreciate the Trianon’s food on another evening, when she joined McAlmon and the Joyces for dinner there. Memories of this meal must have added to her sorrow a decade later, when she shared a final meal with the Joyces at a health food restaurant in Zurich. There, “cold oatmeal was moulded into the shape or pork chops, and then sprinkled with bread crumbs and fried, and beefsteaks were fashioned out of some other substance, and tinted red.” How sad that poor Joyce’s health problems had reduced his pleasures. How equally sad that McAlmon’s devotion to the bottle prevented him from ever enjoying the Trianon to begin with.
The only obstacle that ever stood between Boyle and the pleasures of the palate was money. During the 20s, she had none. Which is where cooking came in.
Boyle, who grew up in Ohio and Pennsylvania, married Richard Brault, a French engineering student, in 1922 when she was twenty, and moved with him to France. The couple barely scraped by on Richard’s salary during their early years, as Kay worked at her first novels. Living in Le Havre, in a tiny apartment where the primitive kitchen had a single gas ring, Boyle learned from her French neighbors how to make the most of her meager circumstances. They showed her how to salt a barrel of fresh green beans that would keep all winter, and how to pack away summer butter. On the weekends, she and Richard would spend hours picking blue-shelled mussels from the shore to save the cost of a dinner or two. Steamed open with “butter and parsley and chopped onion and no more than a single glass of white wine” the mussels made a tasty, if sometimes stomach-cramping, meal. The couple also frequently collected live crabs for dinner, including araignée de mer, or spider crabs. Perhaps Boyle served these with fresh mayonnaise, which she had learned how to make from her sister-in-law soon after arriving in France, “by beating oil with a fork into the yolks of eggs cracked into a deep, narrow bowl.” Later, she and Richard moved out of the city and she began to raise vegetables and sell them at market.
Unfortunately, Boyle’s life on the chill, damp, coast of France was not all idyllic. The rough living took a toll on her health, and after a couple years she developed a chest infection that wouldn’t clear up. Sick and miserable for herself, Boyle accepted an invitation from some literary correspondents to convalesce in their house in the South of France. Once there, she embarked on a passionate affair with the poet Ernest Walsh. In short time, Walsh had died from tuberculosis, leaving Boyle alone and pregnant. Forced to return to her husband, she found reprieve from her miserable circumstances in the pleasures of the kitchen. Together with her friend Germain Garrigou, Boyle experienced a “rapture for cooking which we rejoiced in as though performing the rites of a religion.” She came to see pots and pans not as tools of repression but as objects of beauty, and developed an “obsession” with “the gleam of copper utensils.”
Cooking could not take the place of all other pleasures, however. No longer in love with her husband, Boyle jumped at a chance to move with the baby to Paris in spring 1928. Although, by Robert McAlmon’s thinking, Boyle had arrived too late for Montparnasse, she had the time of her life. She entered into a whirlwind of affairs with the men of Montparnasse including John Glassco, a lover of Robert McAlmon’s, and Raymond Duncan, the very creepy brother of modern dancer Isadora Duncan. So wildly did Boyle chase after pleasure during this interlude that when she became pregnant she claimed to have no idea who the father was. (She procured an abortion with the financial help of wealthy, eccentric, sun-worshipper Harry Crosby, a friend, but apparently not the father.) After compressing years of experience into a matter of months, Boyle finally fled Paris (and Duncan in particular) in December 1928. Soon after she entered into a relationship with the painter Lawrence Vail, who would become her third husband, and she settled back into a slightly more conventional domesticity.
Strikingly, even in the midst of Boyle’s season of sexual abandon, she never lost sight of the pleasures of the kitchen. For Boyle, the rapture of cooking symbolized a realization of her sensual identity, not its sublimation. The two passions amplified each other. When her friend the poet Archie Craig brought her one afternoon to Gertrude Stein’s salon, Boyle recalled, “Alice Toklas and I immediately started to talk of cooking, and to exchange recipes.” Toklas told Boyle about her quest to track the development of gazpacho recipes in Spanish cooking, “far more important to her than cathedrals, museums, and the paintings of El Greco, or the drama of the bull ring.” I would like to imagine that Boyle told Toklas about the recipe for squab she’d learned in Le Havre, which called for drowning the birds, one by one, in a glass of water. Decades later, Toklas advised a similar technique for smothering pigeons in her famous cookbook, although Toklas softened the death by giving the birds eau de vie beforehand.
Although Boyle enjoyed her visit with Toklas, she heard afterwards that Gertrude Stein had asked Archie Craig not to bring her around again. Stein had dismissed Boyle as “incurably middle-class.” One wonders if Boyle’s enthusiasm for the kitchen may have sealed her doom. If so, this appears to be a judgment (one among many) that Stein got terribly wrong. Boyle’s love of cooking didn’t indicate her inability to free herself from bourgeois sensibility, but her hunger for every pleasure of the body. M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child would have understood.