Ruth Reichl recommends: The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook by Alice B. Toklas

by Karen Hagen

Ruth Reichl

I’ve chosen The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook for many reasons. First and foremost, because Toklas is such a wonderful writer she makes you want to run off to the market and into the kitchen. What other book has chapters called “Murder in the Kitchen” and “Dishes for Artists”? And secondly because while her recipes are clear, varied and extremely reliable, they force you to use your mind and your palate. Cook your way through this book, and you’ll have fun, be smarter — and eat wonderfully.

Tell me about The Alice B Toklas Cookbook and why you chose it.

– If you ask most people about the Alice B Toklas cookbook, the recipe that comes immediately to mind is marijuana brownies. It needs to be rescued from that. One of the things that I love about this book is the wonderful way she writes the recipes. If you’re used to Elizabeth David, it’s not so strange, but if you’re used to most American recipes, there is something lovely and conversational about them. I wanted to include a book that had really good recipes. I defy anyone to read this and not get hungry, and not want to go into the kitchen and start cooking. It’s just a wonderful ode to food, and a cookbook. It’s one of the first cookbooks that I really sat down and read and found myself cooking from, as a kid. So it’s important to me that way. But again, it’s one of these books that’s about appreciating life, eating everything and living with the seasons. As a kid, when I read it, I thought, “Why isn’t my life more like this?” This is a book that, again, I feel has been unfairly overlooked and is a great ode to the fact that there were Americans who loved food even in the 1950s.

It doesn’t go into great detail, but it does also convey some sense of Alice Toklas’s life with Gertrude Stein, hanging out in Paris with famous artists. For example, she has ‘‘Bass for Picasso” in there as one of her recipes. He had some specific dietary requirements I think.

– Yes, it’s what Picasso likes. If you’re feeding artists, you have to feed them well.

 And she talks about the American habits she brings to France, like eating in the kitchen rather than always having to bring things through to a formal dining room.

– Yes, but that’s not really American, it’s kind of bohemian, which is another reason that I love the book. It’s this conjunction of formality of food with a casualness in the way it’s served. In the 50s in America, there were a lot of rules about how you ate and how the table was set. In the book, there is a lot of thinking about how you’re setting the table, where you’re eating, picnics and so forth. Again, a kind of, let’s appreciate it, and think about how we’re going to sit down at the table. There is a lot of throwing out the rules – which, for me, is an important part of cooking and eating.

Do you want to recommend one recipe in there?

– I could probably open the book at any point and find a recipe I really love. Let’s see… her way of scrambling eggs [Oeufs Francis Picabia, named after the artist] is perfect. She does it in a double boiler so it is never directly on the heat and it’s very slow, but it’s fantastic.

Born in 1877 in San Francisco, Toklas was an avant-garde thinker who moved to Paris at age 30. She was Gertrude Stein’s lover and the couple hosted a salon that attracted writers like Ernest Hemingway and painters like Picasso and Matisse. This book is her literary memoir and it includes many recipes contributed by the couple’s famous friends.