Review of classic cookbook: Aromas and Flavors of Past and Present by Alice B Toklas Restaurants, Wine, Travel, Opinions

Aromas and Flavors of Past and Present by Alice B Toklas

Reviewed By

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane

Alice B Toklas was born in San Francisco to a comfortably wealthy family who had made their money during the mid-nineteenth century gold rush.
From an early age she became an observer of, and participant in, the fine cooking that occurred in their home. She also began to chronicle the recipes.
She later moved to Paris where she met her life-long friend Gertrude Stein and became an habitué of the Left Bank for the remainder of her life.
Her story up to the nineteen fifties was the subject of the famous work by Gertrude Stein - The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. (This was more a life of Gertrude Stein and was used to describe Alice Toklas' life as a literary contrivance.)
The soirees given by Stein and the diminutive Toklas on Saturday evenings became famous in literary and artistic circles. Hemingway, Picasso, Braque, Pound and Eliot among many, many others were to be found discussing topics as diverse as the role of cubism to the literary worth of Joyce's Ulysses.
And they also talked about and enjoyed food. This was not the role of the imperious Stein but of the organised and efficient Toklas. She also chronicled her dishes and left behind two cookbooks of which Aromas and Flavours of Past and Present was the second which she worked on after Stein's death.
The book is divided into 18 short chapters which range from about four pages up to about fifteen pages in length.
In the soup chapter look for the recipe for Soup a la Cardinale which sees beef soup simmered with parsley, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and pounded hazelnuts poured over croutons sprinkled with Parmesan and chopped calves liver. She also includes Soup Au Pistou and Bourride as memories of Provence.
In her chapter on eggs she includes a sweet and sour egg recipe that caught our eye, derived from the writings of Hypocras in 1656. This involves frying hard boiled eggs in a batter and then serving them with a sweet and sour sauce made with rose, white wine, white wine vinegar, honey and spices. The mix of a battered main element with a sweet and sour sauce surely has its influences in the famous and now much-abused Chinese dish. Another egg recipe that is worth mastering is "Eggs as prepared in the Creuse" which involves whipping egg whites until stiff layering them into a baking dish then making indentations in which to rest the individual egg yolks which are each topped with cream and the whole is then topped with grated Swiss cheese and baked in a hot oven.
She also includes a recipe for that quintessential Italian dish zucchini frittata and claims that the recipe may have originated in China. We have certainly been interested in the fact that there are so many authentic Chinese recipes that involve baked eggs.
Her recipe for "Meat Loaf In My Fashion" reflects the period following the Second World War when she fell in love with the electric blender. For this recipe she makes a fine paste from bread soaked in wine, calves liver, lean veal and lean pork along with a variety of flavourings and then bakes it in the traditional manner in a bain marie.
Another interesting approach is the roasting of a stuffed rabbit. She ties slices of bread covered with pork fat and then waxed paper to the outside of the rabbit to protect the tender flesh while it is roasted.
There are some recipes that some who are conscious of their waistlines might eschew. The "Extravagant Mashed Potatoes" sees four baked potatoes being mashed and then mixed with two CUPS of butter - extravagant indeed!
The book is simply a good read at one level but an excellent introduction to cooking techniques on another level. You can pick it up a read it from cover to cover to get an idea of life in the kitchen at the time. Some recipes we would not consider for their use of tinned vegetables (necessary in post-war Europe). However there are just so many ideas that can be adapted to the modern kitchen that it should be an indispensable addition to the cookbook collection of all food lovers.
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