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San Francisco-born American literary figure, who was a close associate of the author Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), her secretary, cook, and confidante in Paris in her literary salon. Toklas was a chain smoker with a slight moustache, Gypsy earrings, and manicured nails. After moving to Paris, Stein met Alice B. Toklas in 1907; she called her "Pussy", and Gertrude was "Lovey" to Alice. From 1903 to 1909 Stein lived with her brother Leo, who left the couple to continue together in the early 1910s. Their apartment in the Rue de Fleurus became a famous meeting place for artists and writers.
"To cook as the French do one must respect the quality and flavour of the ingredients. Exaggeration is not admissible. Flavours are not all amalgamative. These qualities are not purchasable but may be cultivated. The haute cuisine has arrived at the enviable state of reacting instinctively to these known principles." (from  The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, 1954)

Alice Babette Toklas was born in San Francisco into a middle-class Jewish family. She was educated at public schools and at the University of Seattle and the University of Washington. After the death of her mother, Toklas returned to San Francisco to take care of her father and brother. Her life changed at the age of 29 when she decided to go to Paris at the suggestion of Leo Stein. There she met Gertrude Stein: "She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair."

In 1908 Toklas began typing manuscripts for Gertrude Stein, and by 1909 she was part of her life. They moved in 1910 into 27, rue de Fleurus, which become their famous home. Leo left them in 1913. An excellent cook and fond of paintings, furniture, tapestry, houses and flowers, Toklas soon took the reigns of Stein's household. Later she published THE ALICE B. TOKLAS COOKBOOK (1954), her first book. "The French like to say that their food stems from their culture and that is has developed over centuries," wrote Toklas. "We foreigners living in France respect and appreciate this point of view but deplore their too strict observance of a tradition which will not admit the slightest deviation in a seasoning or the suppression of a single ingredient."

Stein, who has been considered the "masculine" part of the relationship, was the soothing and listening partner; Alice called her a "strong-strong husband". However, A Movable Feast (1964), Hemingway's memoir of his years in Paris after World War 1, gives the impression that Toklas commanded Stein outside the salon. Stein wrote an erotic poem 'Lifting Belly,' to Toklas between 1915 and 1917 - it was not published in Stein's lifetime. Socially it was at that time accepted that women shared homes, but a physical relationship was something else. Another poem to Toklas, inspired by Cubism, was built around four sentences: "Do you really think I would, yes I would," and: "Do you really think I could, yes I could", "Do you really think I should yes I should", and "Do you really think I do love all you with all". Other sides of the crystal-like poem are left "un-visible" - perhaps including the verbs "must" and "ought".

During the period Toklas and Stein were together, they wrote each other little love letters. Alice was an early riser, and Gertrude, who wrote late into the night, left her tender, passionate notes to cheer up her mornings. "Baby precious Hubby worked and / loved his wife-ey, sweet sleepy wife-ey, / dear dainty wife-ey, baby precious sleep," Stein once rhymed.

Toklas gained wide attention with the publication of The Autobiography of Alice. B. Toklas, 1933), which is actually Gertrude Stein's memoirs. It records Toklas's first-person observations of Stein's life and her friends, among them Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque. The book appeared first in an abridged form in The Atlantic Monthly magazine. Stein's writing style is conversational and clear. Toklas notes how many wives of geniuses she had to sit with while Stein was with their husbands. The book also tells of the visit Toklas and Stein made to Alfred North Whitehead's home in England and of their wartime involvement with the American Fund for the French Wounded. They visited hospitals and were later decorated by the French government. When the memoirist James Lord visited Toklas after Stein's death, he noticed for his surprise that "Miss Toklas liked to talk. She did it well, without restraint and at length. But she enjoyed being talked to as well..." (from Six Exceptional Women, 1994)

According to Estelle C. Jelinek, Toklas's presence as the narrator legitimized Stein's role as memoirist. Placing Toklas, the most important person in her intimate life, in the centre of the autobiography, she could pay homage to their story. Toklas is the observing partner, not the directly observed, but at the same time Stein controls the picture she gives of herself: "There I went to see Mrs. Stein who had in the meantime returned to Paris, and there at her house I met Gertrude Stein. I was impressed by the coral brooch she wore and by her voice. I may say that only three times in my life I have met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead."

Stein's book provoked an attack by other Parisian writers. Stein died in 1946 and Toklas twenty-one years later. Toklas's own account of her life with Stein appeared in the impressionistic WHAT IS REMEMBERED (1963). Their last conversation in a Paris hospital has been much quoted: "... What is the answer? I was silent. In that case, she said, what is the question" After Stein died during surgery, Alice cherished Stein's reputation. In the end she found Catholicism, stating that she wanted a ticket into the afterlife, since she considered Gertude immortal and she would be reunited with her in Heaven. Toklas died on March 7, 1967. She was buried beside Stein in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.

The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook came out when Toklas was 77. It contained 300 recipes of such dishes Artichokes Stravinsky, Gigot de la Clinique and Breen Peas à la Goodwife. Many of the receipts are practical, if rather advanced. The book became famous principally because of one recipe, Toklas's Haschich Fudge, originally given by a friend. It was not printed in the first American edition, but was included in the British edition. Toklas's close friends assured that the writer herself had not tested the recipe, and she did not realise what the ingredients were. AROMAS AND FLAVORS: OF PAST AND PRESENT (1997) presented over two hundred recipes and practical and philosophical notes on cooking, starting from frozen aiolli and anchovies in poultry and game dishes.

For further reading: Baby Precious Always Shines, ed. by Kay Turner (1999); Lesbian and Bisexual Fiction Writers, ed. by Harold Bloom (1997); 'Exotic Autobiography Intellectualized' by Estelle C. Jelinek, in 'The Tradition of Women's Autobiography (1986); The Biography of Alice B. Toklas by Linda Simon (paperback, 1991); The Grave of Alice B. Toklas by Otto Friedrich (1989); Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas: A Reference Guide by Ray Lewis White; Roman Spring of Alice Toklas by Donald Windham; Staying on Alone: Letters of Alice B. Toklas (ed. by Edward Burns)

Selected works:

  • THE ALICE B. TOKLAS COOKBOOK, 1954
  • WHAT IS REMEMBERED, 1963
  • STAYING ALONE: LETTERS OF ALICE B. TOKLAS, 1973
  • BABY PRECIOUS ALWAYS SHINES: SELECTED LOVE NOTES BETWEEN GESTRUDE STEIN AND ALICE B. TOKLAS, 1999 (ed. by Kaye Turner)

First published in 1954, The Alice B.Toklas cookbook is one of America's great works of recollection, culinary and otherwise. Toklas lived, cooked, and kept house in Paris and rural France with her companion, Gertrude Stein, from 1908 until Stein's death in 1947. During that time she cooked for and shared food with friends, including Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Thornton Wilder, accumulating recipes for the simple and haute bourgeois dishes compiled in the book. She also saw and remembered all, from life in the high bohemian circle she and Stein occupied; to France during two world wars; to the United States, visited in the '30s; to summers passed in a paradisiacal country retreat at Biligin in France. These and more Toklas depicts vividly and acerbically, all viewed through the prism of food and good eating. Woven within chapters such as "Dishes for Artists," "Food in French Homes," and "The Vegetable Gardens at Biligin," the 300 recipes run the gamut from hors d'oeuvres and salads to breads, entrées, drinks, and sweets. Original (and sometimes whimsical) dishes like Stuffed Artichokes Stravinsky, Gigot de la Clinque, and Bavarian Cream Perfect Love appear among more traditional offerings, such as Boeuf Bourguignon, Chicken à l'Estargon, and Green Peas à la Goodwife. Many of the recipes (which are written in abbreviated-narrative style) will be attempted only by adventurous cooks with time (and, in some cases, money) to spare. The rest of us will enjoy reading the recipes, the droll reminiscences, and the fantasizing about a time when the dishes' creation could be relatively commonplace. The tour of this era and its food, by one of literature's great cook-writers, is obligatory reading.

Arthur Boehm

nourriture dans les arts

The True Story of Alice B. Toklas: A Study of Three Autobiographies - (amazon. esp)

   

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas - (amazon.it)