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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Devilled Smelts & Violet Soufflé: In the Kitchen with Alice B. Toklas
In Chapter Nine of The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, “Little-known French Dishes Suitable for American and British Kitchens,” there are more than fifty recipes including one for devilled smelts, a fish dish made with two kinds of mustard and anchovy paste, and a violet soufflé dessert doused with a substantial tablespoon of Kummel, a clear liqueur flavored with cumin, fennel and caraway seeds. Reading through the two recipes, both seem much more suitable to other people’s kitchens instead of my own, since my limited cooking skills don’t go a lot farther than the end of a soup spoon.
Although the two recipes are brief in length, they seem long on kitchen savvy—or maybe that’s just the way I read them. From the opening line of the devilled smelt recipe, it seems a bit complicated: “Clean, remove fins, wash and dry six smelts.” The washing and drying parts could probably be done without a lot of cooking smarts, but removing fins without some sort of shield or trident sounds potentially dangerous. Toklas must have been too busy cooking during the early decades of the twentieth century to worry too much about it—poaching bass for Picasso, whipping eggs for Francis Picabia, preparing countless dishes for Gertrude Stein and generally feeding a large portion of Paris.
In her own words, Toklas says that the Cook Book, published in 1954, is a “mingling [of] recipe and reminiscence,” and the reminiscing part seems less trouble-free for me to follow than the recipe part. After reading recipes, lingering over the grocery list, organizing kitchen utensils, imagining how the crockery would be filled with phantom perfectly prepared dishes—maybe even dabbling with the idea of ironing a table cloth—there’s always the critical part of actually getting down to cooking, when kidding around is over and it’s time to do stuff in the kitchen. That’s when it gets tricky for me. Maybe there could be some sort of consolation to be had in Toklas’ response to the hullaballoo about her succès de scandale recipe for hashish fudge, when she purportedly said, “What’s sauce for the goose may be sauce for the gander. But it’s not necessarily sauce for the chicken, the duck, the turkey or the guinea hen.”
And there’s a lot of fowl in the Cook Book, including over twenty recipes for chicken. The one for “Chicken in Half Mourning” is probably a pretty accurate portrait of how poultry would fare in my kitchen. (Although the section of the recipe where you add in enough Madeira wine to immerse the chicken seems like a directive I could get behind.)
It’s springtime—open the windows, leave your cares, soufflé your violets, devil your smelts and serve.
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and the author of Knock Knock and Adult Swim (forthcoming), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems, essays and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and The Literary Review, among others. She has presented writers at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop’s weekly reading series and lives in Paris.