Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Travels with Alice

Would you trust a lesbian for advice on men? A few days ago I would have said, Why not?, but now I'm not so sure.

Alice B. Toklas was Gertrude Stein's lifelong partner. Together, they traveled the world, spent Stein's money, led the ex-pat community of pre-WWII Paris, and entertained the geniuses of the day (Alice apparently unhappily stuck making small talk with their wives and mistresses).

I've read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (written, of course, by Ms. Stein), and gathered that Alice was a natural homemaker. She cooked for and entertained Gertrude's friends -- men with names of Joyce, Picasso, Hemingway, Matisse, Gris, and Pound. And that was the extent of my undergraduate Stein/Toklas scholarship.

What a surprise to find an excerpt from The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (1954) in American Food Writing! (Who knew that in the Eisenhower years there was a demand for the culinary musings and homemaking advice of the "widowed" lover of America's best-known, bygone lesbian heiress author?) The excerpt focuses on a lecture tour and travels that the two women made across the U.S. in 1934 and 1935. They were entertained by wealthy acquaintances, professors from the colleges they visited, and Scott Fitzgerald himself, who thoughtfully provided them with "endless varieties of canapés" to remind them of Paris. Needless to say, they weren't eating like the rest of the country. Before giving a lecture, Gertrude could stomach only oysters and honeydew melon, which she had delivered to her hotel room (even in the Midwest, even in winter, although occasionally she had to settle for fish or chicken) -- her diva-demands would put J. Lo to shame.

The theme of the travels seems to be incredulity and delight in finding that American cuisine was not only edible but often as excellent as the French foodstuffs they'd grown to love.

Alice's writing is fresh, self-deprecating, and funny. We learn that travelers have been complaining about airplane food since the very dawn of commercial aviation: "it is incredibly bad," she writes. "Do they cook these meals [...] in the fuselage?" In St. Paul (my hometown), they encountered "miles of ice and snow-drifts" and "sweet people" who welcome them to a "festival dinner," where they sampled mint jelly for the first time. A murder in Detroit scared the wits out of the women (they called in a friend to rescue them to Lansing). In New Orleans (my college town), they dined at the famed Antoine's but preferred a meal at a smaller restaurant -- probably because it was there that they first tasted Oysters Rockefeller. Gertrude secured the recipe (she was very good at this; she paints a charming picture of constantly popping back to the kitchen to congratulate and quiz the cook) and served it to gourmets back in France, remarking that "it makes more friends for the United States than anything I know." (So here's a suggestion, Mr. President: make Oysters Rockefeller, not war.)

In Monterey, Alice and Gertrude stayed at the Del Monte, where they sampled the clean, creative, garden-fresh food that would become the hallmark of another famous cook named Alice (and indeed, the entire state of California). An unforgettable meal of "grilled chicken and turkey broilers, spring lamb cooked on a spit and basted by brushing it with a sprig of fresh mint," served with homemade gooseberry jam, ended with "the ineffable" iced soufflé. Alice provides recipes for both the jam and the soufflé -- in mid August, I took on the latter.

I've had success with soufflés, hot and cold, in the past. For one of my dad's high-summer birthday parties -- a particularly good year for the strawberries -- I filled a dozen pretty teacups with frozen strawberry soufflé. A Gruyere and prosciutto soufflé from The New Basics Cookbook became one of my early staples (having grown out of Pigs in a Blanket).

Alice notes quite matter-of-factly that this iced soufflé "is a particular favourite with men." Intrigued, it was close to the top of my list of recipes to try -- and then when my relationship recently ran into one of those big orange caution signs and off the side of the road, I thought I'd get a perverse pleasure from making this man-happy treat for my girlfriends and gay BFF.

Alice's defining culinary principle is this: "One must get nearer to creation to be able to create, even in the kitchen." She fairly swoons at the sight of the abundant New Orleans market; her greatest complaint about American cooking, even fine American cooking, is its dependence on canned fruits and vegs (for god's sake, woman, this is Grapes of Wrath country!).

It was in this spirit of green-market inspiration that I made significant alterations to the iced soufflé recipe. The soufflé itself was basic: lots of egg yolks, lots of sugar. Whip over low heat 'til stiff, then chill on ice. Alice flavored it with kirsch or anisette and topped with sprinkled macaroons (a prepackaged treat that I've noticed pops up fairly often in mid-20th century recipes). But it being August I went with nature's bounty instead: blueberries and white plums -- and the only booze I had on hand, Crown Royal.

The fruit-and-whisky flavor was terrific but the soufflé did not turn out quite as I expected. Without egg whites, cream, or much of anything to lighten the yolks, on the stove it was very custard-like. And three hours in the freezer was not nearly enough (how did she do it in 3 hours in an old-fashioned ice box?!). After a rave-inducing meal of tuna burgers and gazpacho, it was amusing to witness my friends' dubious looks as I presented them with this pale purple, half-frozen substance that oozed like melted marshmallows and had the subtle but distinctive crunch of partially granulated sugar. Achingly sweet and soupy, my friends diplomatically dubbed it "a great sauce."

Twenty-four hours later, the soufflé was properly frozen and although still vividly sugary, rather yummy. But is this something a man would particularly enjoy? The texture, the sweetness, the very coldness of the dessert all seem rather ... womanly to me, or at least woman-friendly. As my erstwhile ex-boyfriend remarked when he'd heard I'd had a dinner party a day after the crack-up, "Shouldn't you have been eating tubs of ice cream while I got drunk and smashed shit?" Indeed, a couple days later I housed the rest of the soufflé. And so, Alice, I don't believe “the ineffable Iced Soufflé” in any incarnation would win me a man. But getting over one, perhaps.

1 comment:

matt said...

This is a wonderful project you've undertaken; amazing to see all these historical recipes come to life!