I’ve often wished I could travel back in time to visit Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas at their famous 1920’s Paris salon.
Imagine making small talk with the likes of Picasso, Hemingway, Matisse, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thornton Wilder on a leisurely Saturday evening while gazing at an amazing collection of modernist art adorning the walls at 27 rue de Fleurus! Would Alice serve her special mushroom sandwiches, a giant squab in pyjamas, or maybe wild rice salad?
I know what you’re thinking: brownies! Well, perhaps.
It was such a treat to read the recently published picture book Happy Birthday, Alice Babette by Monica Kulling and Qin Leng (Groundwood Books, 2016). Charming and winsome are the first two words that come to mind, along with sheer delight. This fictionalized story based on the lives of these two expat luminaries focuses on their singular relationship — complementary personalities who carved out a unique existence that brought out the best in each other.
It’s Alice’s birthday and she wakes up sensing it will be a day full of surprises. She’s right of course, her first surprise being that Gertrude seems to have forgotten. Strangely, no birthday greetings at the breakfast table, but Alice is determined to enjoy her day nevertheless by walking around Paris.
Tea and croissants for breakfast!
Little does she know Gertrude has something up her sleeve. Even though she’s by no means a cook (instead spending her days and nights writing and/or thinking about writing), today she will cook a special dinner and write a celebratory poem for her dear friend. Gertrude is supremely confident. How hard could it be, right? As soon as Alice is out the door, Gertrude decides on the menu, consisting of Alice’s favorites:
Stewed beef, creamed potatoes, steamed carrots and stuffed celery. And for dessert, Basket, there will be pineapple upside-down cake!
Basket the poodle accompanies Gertrude to the outdoor market. As is typical of writers, Gertrude is a little preoccupied, thinking about her poem the whole time she’s shopping for ingredients. She sees some beautiful roses and decides to bring some home.
Meanwhile, it’s a gorgeous sunny day and Alice is having the best time riding the carousel in Luxembourg Gardens and watching a puppet show. She even has a surprise adventure foiling a jewelry robbery just as she’s leaving.
Back at home, Gertrude is busy cooking. After a neighbor shows her how to work the stove, she tosses things into pots, but just as she pops the cake into the oven, she thinks of the perfect line for her poem. She rushes to her study to write it down and soon becomes engrossed in writing, forgetting all about the food until she smells smoke. Quelle catastrophe!
Everything is burnt and ruined. And the kitchen is a mess!
Soon, cheery Alice walks in, bubbling over about her “day of marvels.” She’s not angry in the least about the messy kitchen (what a saint!) and quickly cleans up while Gertrude writes a story about her culinary fiasco. Once everything is tidy again, Alice bakes brownies. And then the best surprise of all — the doorbell rings and friends arrive with food and gifts! Gertrude reads her poem aloud and everyone has a grand time chatting and feasting on Alice’s brownies, which are, of course, the best.
A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
Kids will easily relate to the scenario of having best intentions fall by the wayside when a compelling distraction presents itself. I think they will be impressed by the genuine love and regard Alice and Gertrude have for one another. We learn early on about the role each plays to maintain their harmonious domestic life: Gertrude writes while Alice cooks, cleans, types and shops. Significantly, Alice encourages Gertrude “because no one else seemed to understand or appreciate her friend’s work.”
It’s good to read about an unconventional relationship marked by unfaltering devotion and to be reminded of Alice’s importance as an enabler. Gertrude thrived as a writer not only because of Alice’s friendship, but as her muse, secretary, critic, editor and day-to-day organizer, Alice provided invaluable guidance and behind-the-scenes support that made it possible for Gertrude to focus on her writing.
Qin Leng’s whimsical, buoyant art beautifully captures Gertrude’s and Alice’s personalities, joie de vivre, and the warmth of their relationship with graceful lines, interesting details, and a pleasing pastel palette with red accents (a pot, rug, awning, roses, Alice’s purse). I love the depictions of the Parisian outdoor markets as well as the interiors of the Stein-Toklas home and salon.
Naturally I am especially fond of the kitchen with its tiled checkered floor, green vintage stove, free-standing porcelain sink and old fashioned cookware and utensils. We see how each of the main characters thrives in her respective milieu: bookish Gertrude at her desk, domestically-inclined Alice at her sink. Each was free and content to simply be themselves, and from this story we can admire Gertrude’s willingness to tackle cooking when it really wasn’t her thing, and Alice assuming responsibility for her own happiness, as she enjoys her birthday just as she pleases.
In case you’re wondering, Gertrude and Alice aren’t described in the narrative as “life partners,” and we certainly don’t need to know that in order to appreciate this particular story. Still, some older readers may view them as a gay couple upon seeing Gertrude’s short mannish hair style as well as the back cover illustration of Gertrude and Alice dancing in each other’s arms. The Author’s Note does mention that “they lived together for almost forty years.”
I think this presents a good opportunity for further discussion, especially as we strive for more diversity and inclusion in children’s books. Here were two human beings who were clearly mad about each other and openly lived like a happily married couple for decades, something that should be celebrated and could be explained in an age appropriate manner.
Don’t miss Happy Birthday, Alice Babette — a satisfying, feel-good story with an airy and elegant retro vibe that’ll make you want to learn more about Gertrude and Alice and visit Paris. Now, about those brownies . . .
A brownie is a brownie is a brownie is a brownie, or is it?
Though many of us automatically think of pot brownies whenever Alice B. Toklas’s name is mentioned, she in fact did not include what we would consider a “brownie” recipe in her famous eponymous cookbook first published in 1954. She did include a recipe for “Haschich Fudge,” contributed by Gertrude’s writer/artist friend Brion Gyson — a fruit, nut, spice, cannabis treat that does not contain a whit of chocolate, but instead seems to resemble the Moroccan psychoactive confection Majoun.
Pot brownies became all the rage because of Peter Sellers’s 1968 movie “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas,” in which hippie character Nancy supposedly uses a recipe from the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (she actually adds marijuana to a batch of boxed brownie mix).
I mention all this because in her Author’s Note, Ms. Kulling states that Alice’s “famous brownie recipe” appears in the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. I find this misleading because after reading this story, a young reader (or even an adult not wholly familiar with the cookbook or the movie), might wish to get the cookbook and try the recipe, only to discover it’s not a conventional brownie recipe after all (does your local grocer carry cannabis?). And if you want to split hairs, the Hashish Fudge technically wasn’t Alice’s recipe to begin with.
Picasso and Hemingway give these brownies two thumbs up!
But enough of being the brownie police. We in the Alphabet Soup kitchen simply had to whip up a batch of fudge brownies (no cannabis sativa for us, we get high on reading). My old standby brownie recipe is more cake-y, and this time I felt like something a little denser and fudgier. If you’ve ever browsed Pinterest for brownie recipes, then you know many of them claim to be “THE BEST.” Such superlatives are understandable because chocolate is involved, but it doesn’t make deciding any easier.
I opted for Quick and Easy Fudge Brownies at the King Arthur Flour website. “Easy” is a pre-requisite for
fossilized mature bakers like me, who don’t always feel like melting bars of chocolate or mixing wet and dry ingredients separately. This baby is a one bowl recipe — just add the ingredients in order, stir, then beat to thoroughly combine.
The website also has a more decadent Fudge Brownie recipe that calls for both cocoa and chocolate chips in addition to more than 2 cups of sugar (diabetes, here I come). So I stuck with the Quick and Easy (even cut the sugar by 1/2 cup) and got a good brownie fix anyway. I baked mine in a 9″ x 9″ pan instead of the 9″ x 13″ pan specified to get a thicker brownie.
Alice would be happy to know I didn’t get distracted at all (even when Colin Firth did the tango with a long-stemmed rose between his teeth) and I cleaned up the kitchen myself.
QUICK AND EASY FUDGE BROWNIES
- 1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
- 3/4 cup natural or Dutch process cocoa
- 1-1/2 cups sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon espresso powder (optional)
- 3 large eggs
- 1/2 cup (8 T) butter, melted
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- *Increase the salt to 1/2 teaspoon if you use unsalted butter
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a 9″ x 9″ baking pan with foil or parchment paper and grease lightly.
2. Put all ingredients into a large bowl in the order given. Stir, then beat the mixture until smooth.
3. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan.
4. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the brownies are just beginning to pull away from the edge of the pan.
5. Remove from the oven and let the brownies cool completely before cutting. Store at room temperature, well-wrapped for 5 to 6 days (if they last that long). Can also be frozen.
~ Adapted from Quick and Easy Fudge Brownies by King Arthur Flour
ONE MORE BITE
You know I love a good backstory, and Alice doesn’t disappoint.
Apparently she didn’t realize cannabis sativa was a key ingredient in the Hashish Fudge recipe when she submitted the cookbook manuscript to her publisher. She was pressed for time and needing to fill space when she asked friends to contribute recipes, so didn’t actually test any of them.
The recipe was innocently included without my realizing that the hashish was the accented part of the recipe. I was shocked to find that America wouldn’t accept it because it was too dangerous.
It never went into the American edition. The English are braver. We’re not courageous about that sort of thing.
The recipe is fun to read — was Alice really clueless about it, or was it a great publicity stunt?
(which anyone could whip up on a rainy day)
This is the food of Paradise — of Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises: it might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR. In Morocco it is thought to be good for warding off the common cold in damp winter weather and is, indeed, more effective if taken with large quantities of hot mint tea. Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter; ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Saint Theresa did, you can do better if you can bear to be ravished by ‘un évanouissement reveillé‘.
Take 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverised in a mortar. About a handful each of stoned dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts: chop these and mix them together. A bunch of canibus sativa can be pulverised. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts, kneaded together. About a cup of sugar dissolved in a big pat of butter. Rolled into a cake and cut into pieces or made into balls about the size of a walnut, it should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient.
Obtaining the canibus may present certain difficulties, but the variety known as canibus sativa grows as a common weed, often unrecognised, everywhere in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa; besides being cultivated as a crop for the manufacture of rope. In the Americas, while often discouraged, its cousin, called canibus indica, has been observed even in city window boxes. It should be picked and dried as soon as it has gone to seed and while the plant is still green.
I had to smile at the mention of “stoned dates.”
BTW, the Hashish Fudge recipe was included in subsequent American editions, giving rise to its many references in 60’s pop culture, forever cementing the link between Alice and marijuana brownies.
Listen to Alice read the recipe in this 1963 recording provided by Pacifica Radio:
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ALICE BABETTE
written by Monica Kulling
illustrated by Qin Leng
published by Groundwood Books, April 12, 2016
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 32 pp.
“It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” ~ Gertrude Stein
“This has been a most wonderful evening. Gertrude has said things tonight that will take her 10 years to understand.” ~ Alice B. Toklas
*Interior spreads posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2016 Monica Kulling, illustrations © 2016 Qin Leng, published by Groundwood Books. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2016 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.