Sunday, October 16, 2016

Hot Gazpacho à la Alice B. Toklas

I've been reading The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book which I bought a few months ago at an estate sale. I thought the title sounded familiar, but had no idea what I was actually buying.

The book is a fascinating memoir about Alice's life as friend, lover, and aide-de-camp to Gertrude Stein. Each chapter centers around a set of their adventures, transporting medical supplies during war time, wrangling persnickety vehicles named Aunt Pauline and Godiva, and traveling here and there around the Continent and elsewhere. All the stories conclude with a description of a meal they ate on these travels, along with a recipe or two.

There are many interesting things about the book. Alice always refers to her companion as "Gertrude Stein", never as merely Gertrude. Use of punctuation is spotty. Questions are often ended with periods rather than question marks. Recipes are introduced in the middle of sentences. Names like Picasso are dropped in the midst of stories about friends and acquaintances.

I'm not sure how many of the recipes I'll include in this blog. It tends not to be my style of cooking. Most of it is very French, both literally and by my own use of the term, meaning: multi-stepped and fussy. But I did want to include this passage on gazpacho. It concludes a chapter on variations of this cold soup, and was added as a sort of epilogue. She writes:
Senora Marta Brunet, a distinguished Chilean writer, is of Spanish or rather Catalan descent and she describes gazpacho as a meal of the Spanish muleteers. And meal it seems, in this version, rather than soup. These muleteers, she says, carry with them on their journeyings a flat earthenware dish--and garlic, olive, oil, tomatoes and cucumbers, also dry bread which they crumble. Between two stones by the wayside they grind the garlic with a little salt and then add the oil. This mixture is rubbed all round the inside of the earthenware vessel. Then they slice the tomatoes and cucumbers and put alternating layers of each in the dish, interspersing the layers with layers of breadcrumbs and topping off the four tiers with more breadcrubms and more oil. This done and prepared, they take a wet cloth, wrap it round the dish and leave it in a sunny place. The evaporation cooks the contents and when the cloth is dry the meal is ready. Too simple, my dear Watson.
Now I don't claim to be a scientist of any kind. Brain or otherwise. But my understanding of the evaporation process is that it cools, rather than heats. A quick googling confirmed that, and led me to an interesting link about a self-cooling Spanish clay water vessel called a Botijo.

So that leaves me wondering if the word "cooks" in the passage was a typo inflicted during the publishing process, or if Alice simply got the story wrong.

Interesting, no?

This little book is a priceless window into a particular era, social milieu, and personality. Definitely worth the read.


  1. Awesome work.Just wanted to drop a comment and say I am new to your blog and really like what I am reading.Thanks for the share