Back during the First World War Alice B. Toklas—a lightly mustachioed California lady best known for being writer Gertrude Stein’s lover and helpmeet for decades—delivered medical supplies to various parts of France. She and Stein, under the aegis of the American Fund for French Wounded, drove hither and yon, navigating the devastation of war while introducing themselves to parts of the country they had not visited before. This enthusiastic journey surely surprised the couple’s friends, especially one gentleman who remembered Toklas (1877-1967) at the time as being “a little stooped, somewhat retiring, and self-effacing. She doesn’t sit in a chair, she hides in it; she doesn’t look at you, but up at you; she is always standing just half a step outside the circle. She gives the appearance, in short, not of a drudge, but of a poor relation, some one invited to the wedding but not to the wedding feast.”
Toklas’s dowdy appearance belied her personality, however. That same gentleman friend noted with pleasure “her wit, her tonic acidity, and her amazing vitality.” And feasts, whether simple or lavish, were actually high on Toklas’s list of interests, while her skill in the kitchen was admired by many, notably James Beard. “Alice was one of the really great cooks of all time,” the American culinary expert told The New York Times on the occasion of Toklas’s death in Paris at age 89. “She went all over Paris to find the right ingredients for her meals. She had endless specialities, but her chicken dishes were especially magnificent. The secret of her talent was great pains and a remarkable palate.”
As an elderly lady, after Stein’s death left her in relative penury, Toklas put together her recollections of life and food in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (Harper & Bros., 1954), the first of her two cookery books. If you don’t have this slender volume, do get one. It is a delightful read and full of delicious suggestions, as well as oddities such as a famous fudge made with hashish, which, she blithely observed, “anyone could whip up on a rainy day.” One recent recipe I tried out was a soup Toklas remembered eating in a small inn near Strasbourg on one of her wartime ambulance missions. Soup of Shallots and Cheese is spectacularly good: easy to prepare, bursting with flavour, and refreshingly economical. I’ll definitely be happy to make this one every week, especially since my husband called it “one of the best soups I’ve ever had.” Even our daughter agreed. The tureen, as you might imagine, was completely emptied by the end of our meal.
SOUP OF SHALLOTS AND CHEESE
SOURCE: The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (Harper & Bros., 1954)
BLOGGER’S NOTE: The recipe is written for one serving. Merely double, triple, quadruple, et cetera, the amounts specified to increase the portions. Also I used homemade chicken stock, which we already had in the freezer, rather than the bouillon cited in the recipe. Toklas’s recipe doesn’t specify the bread to be used either; we used wheat. And since I was afraid to keep the antique tureen warm in the oven, also as directed, I just put the bread on a cookie sheet in the oven until it was required. Better safe than sorry.
For each person lightly brown in butter on each side 1 slice of bread. Put in soup tureen, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon grated cheese and keep hot. Cook over low flame 4 sliced shallots in 1 tablespoon butter and add 1 teaspoon flour. Stir with wooden spoon, add 1-1/2 cups bouillon plus salt and pepper to taste and cook covered over lowest flame for 1/2 hour. Strain broth and add to it 2 tablespoons cream. Pour carefully over bread and cheese in tureen and serve hot.