A certain American presidential candidate, back when such admissions could shock the yokels, admitted that he had tried cannabis as a student. He never inhaled, he added. The remark elicited much laughter, and it remains a punch line. But, in his endlessly lawyerly way, the candidate was telling us that while he may not have smoked, that didn’t rule out eating a mountain of Panama’s finest.
We owe that possibility, in part, to Alice B. Toklas, whose partnership with Gertrude Stein shocked a yokel named Ernest Hemingway, as he recounts, blushingly, in his memoir of 1920s Paris, A Moveable Feast. For all Hemingway’s uneasiness with what was then a most unconventional living arrangement, even in bohemian Paris, he allowed that the Stein/Toklas residence was the focal point of the artistic community, where one might be likely to run into Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Igor Stravinsky, and other avant-gardists—to say nothing of a young writer named Mary Fisher, soon to be known as M.F.K. Fisher, who took a long time to build up the courage to go knocking on their door.
“They were always there, all sizes and shapes, all degrees of wealth and poverty, some very charming, some simply rough and every now and then a very beautiful young peasant,” writes Toklas—well, no, Stein, who, for all the cognitive dissonance it might cause, was the author of the much-read Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
Ms. Toklas, who died at the age of 89 on March 7, 1967, lived for many years with Ms. Stein, much under her shadow. She was tiny, and naturally a touch retiring, and many of her friends wondered whether she would disappear into obscurity when Stein died in 1946.
She did not. Toklas was known for her musical speaking voice, which the poet James Merrill memorably liked to a “viola at dusk.” She translated that elegance into prose, publishing her Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, a whimsical blend of recipes and reminiscence, in 1954. It has not often slipped out of print since, and then briefly, and not just because of its most famous recipe, a concoction that she called “Haschich Fudge,” a dish that, she winningly noted, “anyone could whip up on a rainy day.”
Anyone did: the recipe became a standby of the druggy counterculture of the following decade, enshrined in the 1968 movie I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, with Peter Sellers as a very unconvincing hippie. But discerning French-leaning foodies—a movement only beginning then, in a time when Julia Child had not yet published her own cookbooks—also found much inspiration in Toklas’ pages, beautifully written and full of their own mysteries (“Ernestine said she learned this dish from a Belgian cook but we suspected he was of Alsatian origin”).
Alice B. Toklas published a couple of other books beyond her first, famous cookbook, including her own autobiography proper. But that cookbook is what most people remember when they think of her work—that and, of course, that potent fudge. If you’re a lover of fine food and of literature, then you should love her, too.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.