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An Abridged History of the “Alice B. Toklas” Brownie, with Recipe and Anecdotes

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Photograph via Wikimedia Commons

 

Alice Babette Toklas (1877 -1967) left Seattle for Paris when she was 30-years-old. In Paris she met another American dyke named 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 was famous, and they had a collection of very famous friends. They were 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 1933) was actually written by Stein and had next to nothing to do with Toklas. The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, although it contains some recipes, was more a memoir of a life with friends like American ex-patriots Janet Flanner, Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, Paul Bowles and Virgil Thomson, than a cookbook.

Stein (L) with Toklas, 1939, photograph by Cecil Beaton, National Portrait Gallery

 

Toklas and Stein were inseparable companions. 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: Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Stephen Rutledge, Charles Chaplin, Paul Robeson, and Ford Maddox Ford, to name just a few.

Toklas was by no means 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 of 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 came about when Toklas signed a contract to write a book in 1952. What her publishers wanted was not so much her recipes, but tales of her life with 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 and 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 spotted the special cannabis 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.

First editions: USA on the left, British on the right, both with Sir Francis Rose illustrations.

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 and while the plant is still green.

A decade 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 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 2013, 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 the book.

The Toklas name would, of course, become a part of the vernacular of the pot smoking world with terminology such as: ”toke” and ‘toking” and ”totally tokable”. There is even a legal weed store in Portland named in her honor.

 


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