Thursday, September 1, 2011

Murder in the Kitchen by Alice B Toklas

Cook-books have always intrigued me and seduced me. When I was still a dilettante in the kitchen they held my attention, even the dull ones, from cover to cover, the way crime and murder stories did Gertrude Stein.

When he first began reading Dashiell Hammett, Gertrude Stein remarked that it was his modern note to have disposed of his victims before the story commenced. Goodness knows how many were required to follow as the result of the first crime. And so it is in the kitchen. Murder and sudden death seems as unnatural there as they should be anywhere else. Food is far too pleasant to combine with horror. All the same, facts, even distasteful facts, must be accepted and we shall see how, before any story of cooking begins, crime is inevitable. That is why cooking is not an entirely agreeable pastime. There is too much that must happen in advance of the actual cooking. This doesn’t of course apply to the food that emerges from the deep freeze. But the marketing and cooking I know are French and it was in France, where freezing units are unknown, that in due course I graduated at the stove.

In earlier days, memories of which are scattered among my chapters, if indulgent friends on this or that Sunday evening or party occasion said that the cooking I produced wasn’t bad, it neither beguiled nor flattered me into liking or wanting to do it. The only way to learn to cook is to cook, and for me, as for so many others, it suddenly and unexpectedly became a disagreeable necessity to have to do it when war came and Occupation followed. It was in those conditions of rationing and shortage that I learned not only to cook seriously but to buy food in a restricted market and not take too much time in doing it, since there were so many important and more amusing things to do. It was at this time, then, that murder in the kitchen began.

The first victim was a lively carp brought to the kitchen in a covered basket from which nothing could escape. The fish man who sold me the carp said he had no time to kill, scale or clean it, nor would he tell me with which of these horrible necessities one began. It wasn’t difficult to know which was the most repellent. So quickly to the murder and have it over with.

On the docks of Puget Sound I had seen fishermen grasp the tail of a huge salmon and lifting it high bring it down on the dock with enough force to kill it. Obviously I was not a fisherman nor was the kitchen table a dock. Should I not dispatch my first victim with a blow on the head from a heavy mallet? After an appraising glance at the lively fish it was evident he would escape attempts aimed at his head. A heavy sharp knife came to my mind as the classic, the perfect choice, so grasping, with my left hand well covered with a dishcloth, for the teeth might be sharp, the lower jaw of the carp, and the knife in my right, I carefully, deliberately found the base of its vertebral column and plunged the knife in.

I let go my grasp and looked to see what had happened. Horror of horrors. The carp was dead, assassinated, murdered in the first, second and third degree. Limp, I fell into a chair, with my hands still unwashed reached for a cigarette, lighted it, and waited for the police to come and take me into custody. After a second cigarette my courage returned and I went to prepare poor Mr Carp for the table. I scraped off the scales, cut off the fins, cut open the underside and emptied out a great deal of what I did not care to look at, thoroughly washed and dried the fish and put it aside while I prepared CARP STUFFED WITH CHESTNUTS…

It was in the market of Palma de Mallorca that our French cook tried to teach me murder by smothering. There was no reason why this crime should have been committed publicly or that I should have been expected to participate. Jeanne was just showing off. When the crows of market women who had gathered around her began screaming and gesticulating, I retreated. When we met later to drive back in the carry-all filled with our marketing to Terreno where we had a villa I refused to sympathize with Jeanne. She said the Mallorcans were bloodthirsty, didn’t they go to the bullfights and pay an advanced price for the meat of the beasts they had seen killed in the ring, didn’t they prefer to chop off the heads of innocent pigeons instead of humanely smothering them which was the way to prevent all fowl from bleeding to death and so make them fuller and tastier. Had she not tried to explain this to them, to teach them, to show them how an intelligent humane person went about killing pigeons, but no they didn’t want to learn, they preferred their own brutal ways. Discussing food which she enjoyed above everything had been discouraged at table. But her fine black eyes were eloquent. If the small-size pigeons the island produced had not achieved jumbo size, squabs they unquestionably were, and larger and more succulent squabs than those we had eaten at the excellent restaurant at Palma.

Later we went back to Paris and then there was war and after a time there was peace. One day passing the concierge’s loge he called me and said he had something someone had left for us. He said he would bring it to me, which he did and which I wished he hadn’t when I saw what it was, a crate of six white pigeons and a note from a friend saying she had nothing better to offer us from her home in the country, ending with But as Alice is clever she will make something delicious of them.

It is certainly a mistake to allow a reputation for cleverness to be born and spread by loving friends. It is so cheaply acquired and so dearly paid for. Six white pigeons to be smothered, to be plucked, to be cleaned and all this to be accomplished before Gertrude Stein returned for she didn’t like to see work being done. If only I had the courage the two hours before her return would easily suffice. A large cup of strong black coffee would help. This was before a lovely Brazilian told me that in her country a large cup of black coffee was always served before going to bed to ensure a good night’s rest. Not yet having acquired this knowledge the black coffee made me lively and courageous. I carefully found the spot on poor innocent Dove’s throat where I was to press and pressed. The realization had never come to me before that one saw with one’s fingertips as well as one’s eyes. It was a most unpleasant experience, though as I laid out one by one the sweet young corpses there was no denying one could become accustomed to murdering. So I plucked the pigeons, emptied them and was ready to cook BRAISED PIGEONS ON CROUTONS…

The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook; Harper & Row, 1954

1 comment:

  1. As cook to cook I must confide that this book with its mingling of recipe and reminiscence was put together during the first three months of an attack of pernicious jaundice. Partly, I suppose, it was written as an escape from the narrow diet and monotony of illness, and I daresay nostalgia for old days and old ways and for remembered health and enjoyment lent special lustre to dishes and menus barred from the invalid table, but hovering dream-like in invalid memory.