April 30, 1877– Alice B. Toklas:
“I am a person acted upon, not a person who acts.”
Alice Babette Toklas left Seattle for Paris when she was 30-years-old. In Paris she met another American dyke, Gertrude Stein. The two women were a couple for the next 39 years, living through WW I and WW II, the apex of the age of The Lost Generation. The couple were famous and they had a collection of very famous friends. They were positively partners in every way. Toklas was Stein’s secretary, editor, critic and muse.
Their books’ titles were quite deceptive: The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas was actually written by Stein and had next to nothing to do with Toklas, and The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, although it contains some recipes, was more a memoir of a life with friends like ex-patriots Janet Flanner, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, and Virgil Thomson, than a cookbook.
Toklas and Stein were inseparable companions, faces in the mirror to each other. They were hosts of probably the most renowned cultural salon of all time. Their Paris flat was the gathering place for a dazzling array of the famous, the ambitious, the wealthy, and the curious: Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Stephen Rutledge, Charles Chaplin, Paul Robeson, and Ford Maddox Ford, to name just a few.
Toklas stood so much in Stein’s large shadow that it was said that: “Alice sat with the geniuses’ wives in another room”. In fact, Toklas was by no means such a diminished or retiring figure. Yet, she was mainly content to let Stein scintillate the public, while she operated their household. She ran the house, ordered the meals, cooked, and typed out everything that Stein had written into her notebooks.
Toklas and Stein were a bit of an odd couple. Stein was formidable in girth, with a large face and close-cropped gray hair. Toklas was small and wispy and had brown hair that she wore in a bob with bangs.
Portland’s own famous gay chef, James Beard, wrote:
“Alice was one of the really great cooks of all time. She went all over Paris to find the right ingredients for her meals. She had endless specialties, but her chicken dishes were especially magnificent. The secret of her talent was great pains and a remarkable palate.”
That much renowned recipe for marijuana brownies started when Toklas signed a contract with Harper’s to write a cookbook in 1952. She was a known to be an excellent cook, but what her publishers wanted was not so much recipes, but tales of her life with the more famous Stein. Toklas, then in her mid-70s, didn’t have enough pages to call her tome a book. So, she padded it with the recipes, including that certain one that would become renowned:
“This is the food of Paradise. It might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR, with euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter, ecstatic reveries & extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Saint Theresa did, you can do better.”
Her editors at Harper’s spotted the suspicious special canabis ingredient and cut the recipe out, but the publisher of the British edition didn’t. The press promptly went positively nuts. The London Times wrote:
“The late poetess Gertrude Stein and her constant companion and autobiographee, Alice B. Toklas, used to have gay old times together in the kitchen. Some of the unique delicacies that were whipped up will soon be cataloged, in a wildly epicurean tome which is already causing excited talk on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps the most gone concoction was her hashish fudge.”
The book would go on to be the most successful bestseller for either of the famous lesbian pair.
Here is the recipe:
“Take 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverized in a mortar. About a handful each of stone dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts: chop these and mix them together. A bunch of Cannabis Sativa (my favorite strain) can be pulverized. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts, kneaded together. About a cup of sugar dissolved in a big pat of butter. Rolled into a cake and cut into pieces or made into balls about the size of a walnut, it should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient. Obtaining the cannabis may present certain difficulties. It should be picked and dried as soon as it has gone to seed & while the plant is still green.”
Just a few years ago, I had an acquaintance (now living in San Francisco with a rich boyfriend) that made a variation of this recipe. With only one half of a serving, I was unable to raise my head off the pillow or function for 12 hours. His advice:
“Don’t sit down. After you eat one you need to go hiking or dancing. Keep moving.”
I was left giggling, horny and hungry and unable to move. In summer 2012, I ate a Toklas brownie at a backyard neighborhood party. After an hour, I felt nothing. So, I ate another. As I swallowed the last crumb, I felt brownie number one come on. Another hour later, I had to crawl home on my hands and knees as my neighbors watched. I was so high, I saw Gertrude Stein when I gazed into my bathroom mirror.
Toklas lived another 20 years after Stein left this world. At the end of her life she was broke. The family of Stein had claimed the famous paintings and royalties from Stein’s works. In those final years, Toklas was plagued with financial difficulties. She had no choice after Stein’s heirs took everything, except to write a real memoir.
Toklas did write about Stein this time (she called Stein “the mother-of-us-all”) in an actual memoir, What Is Remembered (1963). Her style, in sharp contrast to Stein’s convolutions, was simple and spare. In What Is Remembered, Toklas relays her fateful first encounter with Stein, conveying with admirably few words the immense, intense mesmerism of that relationship:
“It was Gertrude Stein who held my complete attention, as she did for all the many years I knew her. I knew her until her death, and all these empty ones since then. She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else’s voice; deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto’s, like two voices.”
Although Toklas converted to Catholicism late in life, the pair of Jewish lesbians are buried next to each other in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
The Toklas name would, of course, become a part of the vernacular of the pot smoking world with the terminology: “toke”. There is even a legal marijuana store in Portland named in her honor.
“But, I don’t want nutrition! I want food!”