First published in 1954, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is one of America's great works of recollection, culinary and otherwise. Toklas lived, cooked, and kept house in Paris and rural France with her companion, Gertrude Stein, from 1908 until Stein's death in 1947. During that time she cooked for and shared food with friends, including Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Thornton Wilder, accumulating recipes for the simple and haute bourgeois dishes compiled in the book. She also saw and remembered all, from life in the high bohemian circle she and Stein occupied; to France during two world wars; to the United States, visited in the '30s; to summers passed in a paradisiacal country retreat at Biligin in France. These and more Toklas depicts vividly and acerbically, all viewed through the prism of food and good eating.
Woven within chapters such as "Dishes for Artists," "Food in French Homes," and "The Vegetable Gardens at Biligin," the 300 recipes run the gamut from hors d'oeuvres and salads to breads, entrées, drinks, and sweets. Original (and sometimes whimsical) dishes like Stuffed Artichokes Stravinsky, Gigot de la Clinque, and Bavarian Cream Perfect Love appear among more traditional offerings, such as Boeuf Bourguignon, Chicken à l'Estargon, and Green Peas à la Goodwife. Many of the recipes (which are written in abbreviated-narrative style) will be attempted only by adventurous cooks with time (and, in some cases, money) to spare. The rest of us will enjoy reading the recipes, the droll reminiscences, and the fantasizing about a time when the dishes' creation could be relatively commonplace. The tour of this era and its food, by one of literature's great cook-writers, is obligatory reading. --Arthur Boehm