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March 23, 2009 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

The Alice B Toklas Cookbook

First published in 1954, this culinary memoir was re-edited in 1995, and re-released with a foreword by Maureen Duffy, giving context for those younger readers who may not have known of the great writing partnership of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, Americans resident in Paris for most of their lives.

Both drove ambulances during the occupation of France in the Second World War, then settled into a pattern of writing during the winters, and summering by traveling the provinces, collecting good restaurants and country houses to stay in. Alice’s memoirs preserve some of the great recipes of French provincial cooking, while also being a diary of their bohemian and creative social circle.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what a house party hostess would have cajoled her cook into providing for a meal for Picasso, Alice tells you. Along with several chapters of classic menus for haute cuisine we have never seen the equal to in New Zealand, not even in the heyday of Orsini’s and the Grain of Salt in the 80s, before the last crash. The ladies (definitely two, possibly fat) munched their way around France, and provide an interesting insight into the normality of good, fresh, seasonal produce back in the 40s and 50s, along with the assumptions that ingredients like shaved truffles were just what one added to make a dinner into an exquisite dining experience.

I’ve read Mrs Beeton’s Cookbook, I own a copy of the Larousse Gastronomique, but this little book (280 pages plus index, in the American edition) has far more charm and glamour than the classic tomes of culinary wisdom that I have accumulated from family members.

I obtained my reading copy through the LILAC library, a members-only enterprise in Wellington, but I’m sure that Unity Books would stock this, or at the very least order a copy in, if you are interested. As an antidote to recessionist thinking, it has been a marvelous, if weighty, read, and has stimulated my desire to cook menus, not just food, once again. Watch my waistline!

There were two distinct recipes for Beef Bourguignon for me to choose from, one of which did its duty recently and was polished off by flatmates and friends at a potluck dinner party we held last weekend. I may need to own my own copy of this enticing book, as it stirs memories of the many French novels that contributed to my undergraduate major, and reminds me of happy times fundraising-with-food in the French Dept, as we combined our skills to finance the loss-leading French Club plays of our day. Bon Appetit, tout le monde!


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