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The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book as the Fulfillment of the Couple’s Writerly Ambitions

The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book

In what is arguably the best known expatriate culinary memoir of the twentieth century, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954), Gertrude Stein’s widow offers a “mingling of recipe and reminiscence” for American readers to emulate. The California-raised daughter of Polish immigrants, Alice B. Toklas traveled to France after the San Francisco earthquake in 1907. Once she met and fell in love with Gertrude Stein, Toklas decided to make France her home permanently. The two women parlayed their romantic and professional partnership into a carefully crafted joint public persona as a couple, a phenomenon that has recently become more mainstream through the popular or celebrity media practice of blending the first names of partners involved in high profile or celebrity “supercouples” to arrive at a portmanteau word which serves as a joint moniker, such as Bennifer, TomKat, or Brangelina. While such naming conventions were not in vogue when either Stein or Toklas was writing, I argue that they nonetheless pioneered the concept of the supercouple by constantly referring to their status as domestic partners in public and private life, and using the first person plural “we” and “our” more often than the first person singular in their correspondence and published writing.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), may be the earliest, most intricate and most high-profile articulation of their joint identity; this text first suggests the possibility that Alice could earn a living as a writer at some future time. In a three paragraph sequence leading up to the book’s denouement, the revelation that Gertrude Stein, and not the titular character, is the actual author of the Autobiography, the “narrative voice” of Alice B. Toklas claims that, unlike American novelist Ford Maddox Ford, a family friend who takes turns being a “pretty good” writer, an editor and a businessman, she/the narrating Alice manages multiple obligations simultaneously:

I am a pretty good housekeeper and a pretty good gardener and a pretty good needlewoman and a pretty good secretary and a pretty good editor and a pretty good vet for dogs and I have to do them all at once and I found it difficult to add being a pretty good author. (no pg #, Kindle version)

Interestingly, being a “cook” is not among the multiple occupations at which the narrative voice of Alice B. Toklas claims to be “pretty good”. This silence regarding her skills in the kitchen seems all the more striking for all the attention paid to the meals the couple consumes and feeds to their famous friends, both at their Saturday night salons in Paris, as well as in their summer place in Provence. Since Alice B. Toklas’ refined palate was legendary in its sophistication even at this early date, and especially given that gastronomy is an ongoing theme throughout the Autobiography, this omission is rather comical.
Such was the strength of Alice B. Toklas’ culinary prowess, that it even suffused their intimates’ sense of the couple’s household as being one large, extended kitchen instead of a grand atelier. In the chapter he dedicates to discussing Gertrude Stein in Axel’s Castle: A Study of the Imaginative Literature of 1870-11930 (1931), Edmund Wilson quotes novelist Sherwood Anderson, a frequent guest of the Stein-Toklas household, whose own “imaginative energies” lead him to conflate the two women into the one public persona of “Miss Stein”, in an interesting projection of a male fantasy of domestic bliss:

In the great kitchen of my fanciful world in which I[ see] Miss Stein standing, there is a most sweet and gracious aroma. Along the walls are many shining pots and pans, and there are innumerable jars of fruits, jellies, and preserves. Something is going on in the great room, for Miss Stein is a worker in words with the same loving touch in her strong fingers that was characteristic of the women in the kitchens of the brick houses in the town of my boyhood. She is an American woman of the old sort, one who cares for the hand-made goodies and who scorns the factory-made foods, and in her own great kitchen she is making something with her materials, something sweet to the tongue and fragrant to the nostrils. (Axel’s Castle 201)

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar read this mouthwatering scenario as Anderson’s sexist reaffirmation of traditional gender roles, not only because he situates Stein, who does not cook, in an imaginary kitchen but also, presumably, because he explicitly compares her approach to writing to the manual labor of both hired cooks and of the unacknowledged Alice. I prefer to read this passage as an example of how successful these women were in promoting a joint public persona.

Stein returns to the idea that Alice B. Toklas should become an author with the publication of Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), the decidedly more experimental, less commercial follow-up to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Writing in her own inimitable voice, Stein recalls an exchange with a fellow traveler on board during the return voyage after the lecture tour of the United States during the mid-1930s. This passage constitutes the first reference to Alice B. Toklas’ alleged desire to write not just a book, but a cook book some day:

On the Champlain it was not exciting, we were still celebrated of course but we were soon across the ocean and back again, there was one nice American who told Alice Toklas that she was going to have a career that would soon be beginning, and that I would go on succeeding, we wondered what the career of Alice Toklas was going to be and when it was to begin and then it almost began she decided to write a cook book and if she did the career would begin and she will but she has not yet had time, naturally enough who can and of course this she would not let me do for her and with reason. (Everybody’s Autobiography 305)

This passage may be just another instance of what Gilbert and Gubar call Stein’s “lesbian doubletalk” which they claim she developed in the poem, “Lifting Belly,” where Stein deploys the couple’s collective voice to “re-enact yet ridicule the hierarchies that structure the heterosexual marriage even as they release imaginative energies” (No Man’s Land 188). However, in the passage I examine, Stein’s imaginative energy goes so far as to portray Alice as an independent, self-determining, desiring agent who not only “decided” to undertake such a project but also denies her lover the authority to act as literary ventriloquist a second time, “with reason”. The source of such confidence is not the stranger’s prognostication but, I would argue, the self-same culinary expertise to which the “narrative voice” of the Alice B. Toklas from the Autobiography lays claim. In any event, time is the ever-present foe which thwarts the writerly ambition of both Stein’s 1933 and 1937 literary projections of Alice B. Toklas; it is not until Gertrude Stein’s death in 1946, that the historical Alice B. Toklas takes steps to fulfill this joint ambition of having a career writing cookbooks.

When she does take it upon herself to put pen to paper and recreate the meals she and her beloved shared in France for the enjoyment and pleasure of her American (and British) reading audiences, Toklas contradicts the easy and confident tone which Stein ascribed to her fictional narrative voice early in the Autobiography. Stein’s version of Toklas takes ownership of her personal expertise in the kitchen; to her presumably lay readers, Stein’s Toklas defends her use of the culinary allusions to explain her understanding of how artists conduct their work: “I do inevitably take my comparisons from the kitchen because I like food and cooking and know something about it” (no page numbers, Kindle version!) Ironically, the historical Toklas herself addresses her American and British readers more complexly, simultaneously leveling the playing field by declaring herself an expert in the kitchen who is addressing an imagined community of peers “As cook to cook” (xi), while also confessing that her ascendance to that role coincided with her relationship with Gertrude Stein: “Before coming to Paris I was interested in food but not in doing any cooking. When in 1908 I went to live with Gertrude Stein at the rue the Fleurus she said we would have American food for Sunday-evening supper, she had enough French and Italian cooking; the servant would be out and I should have the kitchen to myself” (29). Toklas ascribes the rise of her interest in domestic matters to a double displacement occasioned by love: through her involvement with a beloved who is employed abroad (Gertrude Stein), she becomes separated from the United States, her country of origin, and cast adrift from her own identity as a professional except in relation to the beloved. Cooking or the task of overseeing the preparation of meals, thus, become acceptable ways through which Toklas and the women who follow in her footsteps perform their identity as “Americans” for and with their beloved.

Alice B. Toklas’ self-titled Cookbook displays a wealth of hard-earned, accumulated culinary knowledge, most of it hers, but not exclusively so but also serves as a work of mourning: it pays tribute to the long and happy union that was the inspiration for Toklas to finally fulfill the writerly aspiration her beloved envisioned for her.

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Filed under Cook Books, Culinary Kunstlerroman, Memoirs with Recipes, Modernism