During the month of September, we’re celebrating the publication of our first literary cookbook, Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal by rounding up some of our bravest “chefs” at the Press to take on the task of cooking this book! In the next few weeks, we’ll be serving up reviews, odes, and confessions from Press staff members who attempted various recipes à la minute.
Assistant Editor Caelyn Cobb, on pot brownies, Gertrude Stein, and how to cook lettuce (or “sacrifice the innocents”).
“So does it have pot in it?” my boyfriend asked when I said I planned to make a dish from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook for our blog.
More than any other Modernist writer, Alice B. Toklas is a household name, due largely to the success of her cookbook, a mishmash of memoir and recipes which contained one of the earliest published recipes for pot brownies. I am here to break the terrible news that Books That Cook does not contain a recipe for pot brownies. (Maybe in the second edition.)
Instead, the excerpt from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is a retelling of the writer’s time at a house in the French countryside, where she and her partner Gertrude Stein spent fourteen summers. It is largely about fruits and vegetables—growing them, picking them, cooking them, serving them, and eating them. I was attracted to this chapter for two reasons. First of all, vegetables seemed much easier to prepare, involving less time, fewer ingredients, and less of my money. I was sort of right about these things, but then again, I only sort of made the recipe. But more on that later.
Mainly, though, I was drawn to this chapter due to my past life as a literature student. Most interested in feminism, poetry, and Modernism, I was steered by many TAs and professors to Gertrude Stein’s most famous work, the poetry collection Tender Buttons. I was disappointed to find that I did not like this book anywhere near as much as I liked feminism, poetry, or Modernism individually. Tender Buttons is often described as “cubism for poetry,” which mostly means that you can only sometimes tell what is going on.
It wasn’t easy being a Modernist woman, especially on the American expatriate scene, and so I feel bad about not being a bigger fan of Gertrude Stein’s work. The leading lights of the Lost Generation were the greatest literary bros of their generation, ushering in a period of literary bro-ism that persists to this day. Given the time they spent watching bullfights, locking their wives in sanitariums, learning to box, and moving young ingénues into their homes (with or without approval of their wives) because it “helped with their creativity”, it’s a wonder that they got any writing done. Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas hosted, promoted, and befriended many of these men, introducing them to leading artists and intellectuals—and looking at their memoirs, it sounds like quite a lovely and exciting time. However, Hemingway would later memorialize Stein in his own memoirs as looking “like a Roman emperor, and that was fine if you liked your women to look like Roman emperors,” so maybe not.
I mull this over as I get ready to make my dish, getting in the mood by thinking angry feminist thoughts and listening to the moodiest French band I had on my iPod. I had selected a cooked lettuce dish called “lettuce in ribbons with cream” because I thought it was funny how Toklas only begrudgingly gives these recipes, calling them “the sacrifice of the innocents” (innocents being lettuce, I presume).
It is the simplest of the recipes but also the least specific. What kind of lettuce? What is “heavy cream sauce”? I imagine her cooking with the tiny, sweet lettuce my grandpa grows in his garden, but I can’t find these in Queens and settle on two tiny heads of Boston lettuce. I contemplate making my own béchamel sauce, which I think is what she means by “cream sauce”, but I instead purchase a jar of Alfredo sauce because I do not feel like it.
The recipe does call for one specific ingredient, and that is “one teaspoon of onion juice.” They definitely do not have this at my grocery store; I turn to Google for instructions on how to make my own onion juice, but it seems like way too much work for one teaspoon. I instead buy an onion and sauté a few pieces with the lettuce. I am basically murdering this recipe, but you know, death of the author, etc.
The dish itself is pretty easy: slice up the lettuce, sauté it (with onion) in a lot of butter, then once the lettuce absorbs the butter, add salt, cover it and let simmer. I buy two heads of lettuce and the shredded bits fill three large bowls. I cook down two and half of them into a tiny wad of lettuce, which I then cover in Alfredo sauce. I am reminded of a Dutch dish, which involves cooking lettuce with ham and root vegetables in a white gravy. I’m sure it has a Dutch name, but in my family we just call it “Dutch lettuce.” It is not a crowd pleaser. My aunt would request it for her birthday dinners as a child just to prank her siblings. I begin to regret my choice of dish, but am too far in to turn back, much in the way I began to regret my decision to write my BA thesis on Modernist poetic criticism over winter break of my senior year. The only option is to suck it up and see it through.
Early in our courtship, my boyfriend had confirmed a deep love of vegetables that we both share. “Don’t insult my home by bringing a salad into it,” he warned, as I offered to do this very thing. Thus, I have promised the meal I make will not be only vegetables, and set about preparing bacon and tomato wraps while the lettuce is simmering. At the time I planned this, I had liked the BLT symmetry.
When I serve up the lettuce, he pronounces it “very tasty.” It is not bad. It is also very heavy; cooked lettuce has an earthy taste, and paired with a creamy cheese sauce, it’s extremely rich. I recommend serving it with something lighter than a bacon sandwich, like tilapia or chicken or anything besides bacon. I feel like I just ingested a grease ball.
After we finish our meal, I jokingly whip out my copy of Tender Buttons.
“Vegetable,” I read. “What is cut. What is cut by it. What is cut by it in.”
“Okay, that’s enough of that,” my boyfriend says.
Caelyn Cobb is Assistant Editor at NYU Press.