Saturday, July 16, 2011

Murder in the Kitchen by Alice B Toklas

In this memoir-turned-cookbook, Alice B. Toklas describes her life with partner Gertrude Stein and their famed Paris salon, which entertained the great avant-garde and literary figures of their day.

With dry wit and characteristic understatement Toklas ponders the ethics of killing a carp in her kitchen before stuffing it with chestnuts; decorating a fish to amuse Picasso at lunch; and travelling across France during the First World War in an old delivery truck, gathering local recipes along the way. She includes a friend's playful recipe for 'Haschiche Fudge', which promises 'brilliant storms of laughter and ecstatic reveries', much like her book.

Alice B Toklas is best known as the woman who was the life long companion and partner to Gertrude Stein, and lived in Paris from 1907 until at least the 1940s. Alongside Stein, Toklas hosted a salon in Paris which attracted luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway and Picasso.

In this book, she talks about learning to cook starting with simple dishes that she had previously eaten in California and working her way up to much more complex meals as she grew more confident.

As much a reflection of a particular time and place in history as it is a recipe collection, Toklas shares memories of people and times in what is a very readable book. Very early in the book she tells of a day that Picasso came for lunch and she "decorated a fish in a way that I thought would amuse him".

The title of the book comes from the second chapter, where Toklas contemplates the idea that before any cooking begins there must be murder committed - the first victim "was a lively carp brought to the kitchen in a covered basket from which nothing could escape".  After the deed was done, "the carp was dead, killed, assassinated, murdered in the first, second and third degree" and Toklas was left waiting "for the police to come and take me into custody."

The stories shared are not only of the famous people she knew. Amongst others, the author also shares the story of Kaspar, the lovelorn Austrian chef who cooked Linzer Torte and Gypsy Goulash for them.

By far the biggest chapter of the book is titled Food to Which Aunt Pauline and Lady Godiva Led Us. Who is Aunt Pauline? It is the delivery truck that Stein and Toklas used to deliver supplies during World War I. Stein "was a responsible driver if not an experienced driver. She knew how to do everything except go in reverse" and in it they traveled across the French countryside collecting supplies, anecdotes and recipes. 

Here Toklas talks about returning to Paris just after the end of World War I (from pages 45 to 46)

The next morning we were back in Paris, more beautiful, vital, and inextinguishable than ever. We commenced madly running about, to see our friends and theirs. It was gay, it was feverish, but pleasurably exciting. Auntie Pauline took us to lunch and dinner parties. Our home was filled with people coming and going. We spoke of each other as the chauffeur and the cook. We had no servant. We had largely overdrawn at our banks to supply the needs of soldiers and their families and now the day of reckoning had come. We would live like gypsies, go everywhere in left-over finery, with a pot-au-fue for the many friends we should be seeing. Paris was filled with Allies, the Armies, the Peace Commission, and anyone who could get a passport. We lunched and dined with a great many of them, at their messes, headquarters, homes, and restaurants. One evening Aunt Pauline had taken us out to the Bois de Boulogne to dine with friends in the garden of one of its restaurants. While dinner was being served the maitre d'hotel asked me to please follow him, someone wished to speak to me. It was a policeman to announce that trucks were not allowed in the Bois. They had been tolerated during the war, but an Armistice had been signed. So would Madame see that her truck did not appear there again.

One of the things that I found myself contemplating whilst reading this book was about how so many of the foods that we count as luxuries now seemed to be common place foods, or perhaps it is because Alice B Toklas and Gertrude Stein mixed in higher society than I ever would. For example, there is a recipe for Perpignan Lobster which calls for four small lobsters. Now I don't know about you, but last time I went out for dinner and one of my friends had lobsters, they were upwards of $100 each. It could well be that there is a difference in terminology as well - a bit like shrimps vs prawns which seem to have different connotations depending on where you live.

This book is only 80 or so pages long, so it is obvious that the book contains only selected excerpts from the original text, although I have to say that isn't particularly clear anywhere on the books themselves. It is the first book I have read from the Penguin Great Food series, but I can't see it being the last.

Have you heard of the Penguin Great Food series? 

There are twenty books in the series in all, showcasing the best of food writing over the past 400 years, and there is a lot of variety. In addition to this book, I have also bought Exciting Food for Southern Types by Pellegrino Artusi which is about Italian cooking, and I have my eye on a few more including The Chef at War by Alexis Soyer - a Victorian era chef who went to the Crimean War to try and improve the quality of the food that was provided to soldiers and A Taste of the Sun by Elizabeth David. It doesn't hurt that the books look gorgeous as well!

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs.


  1. My father, who was a child in Adelaide in the 1940s, recalls (often, and with some moroseness!) that back then crayfish was a plentiful, cheap food favoured by the very poor and derelict! How things have changed.

  2. I don't know how I missed this series. I love food and I love reading about it too so I will definitely look up some tof the titles.

  3. Thanks so much for highlighting the Penguin food offerings. I was unaware of these books, and will definitely look for them now.

    The carp story is quite funny :)

  4. I didn't know this was in existence but I don't know how. Fun stuff!

  5. This book looks excellent. I'm very interested in reading it and the rest of the Fenguin Great Food Series. I do love good food writing,

  6. What gorgeous books! And love the stories from the one you highlighted!

  7. I didn't know the Penguin Food Series existed. Thanks for posting about it!

  8. I also had no idea about the Penguin Food Series, but now I am thinking that I need to get my hands on a few to sample them for myself. This was a wonderful post, and I love what you had to say about the book!

  9. Interesting reading. Alice Toklas showed up a couple of times in My Life in France by Julia Child. I get the impression that she kind of hung around on the edges of parties.

  10. I had not heard of this series but I am glad I know about it now. Must check out!

  11. Sounds like a light fun read, perfect for summer!
    Here's My WC

  12. I have totally been craving this series since I first heard about it earlier this year. Elizabeth David is one of my favorite food writers -- and this volume sounds really interesting too.

  13. Beth and I Read, Do You? this is the first one I have read, but I intend to get more.

    Vicki, it was a fun read.

    Sheila, Margot and Zibilee, I hope you find something of interest in the series.

    Joy, you might be right.

    Girlswannaread, you are welcome.

    Sharon, when you see all the individual covers they are all gorgeous!

    Glad to have bought the series to your attention Pam, Ellie and The Book Girl!

    Bibliothas, they have changed a lot indeed!

  14. How have I missed the Penguin Food Series? I have no idea. It sounds great, particularly this title. Whenever I get through my current Paris books, I'd like to read a bit about Paris in the early 20th century- Hemingway, Toklas et al. It seems such a fascinating time in a beautiful city.