Murder in the Kitchen

“Cook books have always intrigued 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.”

I’m a fan of the Penguin Great Food series, particularly Murder in the Kitchen by Alice B. Toklas – recipes and reminiscences from her time in France with Gertrude Stein and The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook.

These paperback selections of classic food writing – Artusi, Roden, David & many more – are perfect for reading on the train, or indeed for any kind of travelling. They are a good food fix when propping up the latest Sabrina Ghayour on a CrossCountry fold-down is just impractical.

One of my favourite moments in the book, from early in Toklas’s cooking career, is the death of the carp. Overhwelmed by her first foray into killing fish, Toklas collapses into a chair with a cigarette.

“After a second cigarette my courage returned and I went to prepare Mr Carp for the table.”

The dish in question is Carp with Chestnuts, and the effect of the writing is highly visual and visceral. Later, confronted with six live white pigeons for Gertrude’s tea, a large black coffee is needed. This is about as far from clean food as you’re going to get and the cooking of an earlier time is brought steaming to life.

It all reminds me of the sculleries of my childhood, where grandmothers hacked off the heads of herring, or great freshly butchered ox tongues languished like alien exhibits in bloating glass bowls of pink. Alice B. Toklas was older than my grandmothers, but not by much, and I’m not celebrating gore at all, but remembering a time when the pristine remove we appreciate now just wasn’t there, the kind of innate understanding of food & living things that just gets lost.

Along with recipe after recipe, there’s also life in France – the tribulations of Kaspar the Austrian cook and his troubled love life (Lili & the Devil, no less), Gertrude Stein and her refusal to drive in reverse, Godiva the car & cooking for Picasso. The recipes act as illustrations to the narrative, and they lead from one to the other beautifully, sometimes the stories tumbling straight into a dish without pause.

Alice B. Toklas, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1949

It is very hard not to read the book with a huge underlying sadness, knowing that because of the laws at the time, Alice B. Toklas was unable to keep the possessions willed her by Stein after her death, and despite friendly interventions over the years, died penniless.

Murder in the Kitchen is pioneering stuff, and filled with the heady romance of an earlier era & the sumptious, brilliant reality of its food. At times, it is vivid inspiration mixed with pure sunlit escapism:

“Comparing the cooking of a dish to the painting of a picture, it has always seemed to me that however much the cook or painter did to cover any weakness would not in the least avail. Such devices would only emphasise the weakness. There was no weak spot in the food prepared by the chef at the Hôtel de la Côte d’Or.”