Anyone who has ever been lucky enough to live in Paris can tell you that the city is at its best in autumn. The melancholy downward spiral of the chestnut leaves, the level September light, laid like good butter over the long shadows in the Bois de Boulogne, and skies so blazingly blue that it is not difficult to know what the craftsmen of Notre Dame were thinking of when they made the stained glass for the great rose window.
A perfect time, whether you are in Paris or not, for one of those October picnics that lingers as the final remembrance of summer. Who better than Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein, those arbiters of taste whose love of French food introduced two generations of American writers to the pleasures of the palate, to guide your choice in stuffing the hamper?
"The French approach to food is characteristic; they bring to their consideration of the table the same appreciation, respect, intelligence and lively interest that they have for the other arts; for painting, for literature, and for the theatre."
So begins Alice B. Toklas' wise, anecdotal, and charming account of her years in Gertrude Stein's kitchen. When she collected these memories, in 1954, American cooking was at one of its lowest points ever. Meatloaf and marshmallow-pineapple salads, white bread and jelly, grapefruit with hot dog bits stuck on toothpicks -- these were some of the native dishes that astonished travelers.
So Alice may be excused for her attitude toward America's tables; Gertrude shared it. When Stein was invited for a seven-month lecture tour of the States, Toklas reports, "Gertrude could not decide whether she did or did not want to go to the United States, one of the things that troubled her was the question of the food she would be eating there. Would it be to her taste? A young man from Bugey had lately returned from a brief visit to the United States and had reported that the food was more foreign to him than the people . . . very strange indeed -- tinned vegetable cocktails and tinned fruit salads, for example."
In fact, that lecture tour of the mid-'30s was an eye-opener for Alice and Gertrude. Wild rice, soft-shell crab, clear turtle soup and epic oyster consumption consoled them for some of the worst local cooking they encountered.
In Baltimore, Scott Fitzgerald served them tea and "an endless variety of canapes, to remind us," she said, "of Paris." In St. Paul, Sherwood Anderson introduced them to mint jelly. In Chicago, they stayed with Thornton Wilder and Alice did the cooking. "The kitchen, though no larger than a dining-room table, permitted one, with its modern conveniences and marketing by telephone, to cook with the minimum of time and effort quite good meals. Those days are still my ideal of happy housekeeping. The meat or fowl delivered in waxed paper was deposited from the outside hall into the refrigerator, as were also the vegetables, cream, milk, butter, and eggs."
Of the markets in New Orleans, Toklas says, "I walked down to the market every morning realising that I would have to live in the dream of it for the rest of my life. How with such perfection, variety and abundance of material could one not be inspired to creative cooking. Can one be inspired by rows of prepared canned meals? Never! One must get nearer to creation to be able to create, even in the kitchen."
I like to think that if she could hover over the average American table today, Alice's hungry ghost would inhale the bouquet of herbs, fresh vegetables, and fine meats with approval. Since she wrote her nostalgic paeon to the kitchens of days gone by, American cooking has undergone an apotheosis. We have come to regard our food quite as seriously, if not as solemnly, as the French. The revival of ethnic cooking and the education of the public palate has created a new cuisine that uses the best fresh ingredients in imaginative ways undreamed of by the French.
And the Prohibition-ridden, potato-dumpling America that sent so many exiles abroad has yielded to a country in which even the Holiday Inn has a wine list, and regional specialties are served with pride. I think they'd feel at home here, now.
Gertrude and Alice were in the habit of motoring to little villages outside Paris, in an old Ford they called Lady Godiva. The following lunch is adapted from Alice's idea of road food.
Chicken and mushroom pate sandwiches
2 skinless boneless chicken breasts
1 cup white wine
1 cup water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Hungarian paprika
2 cups finely chopped white mushrooms
1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon leaves
1/4 cup butter at room temperature
six small loaves French bread
the leaves of one bunch of watercress, washed and dried and chopped fine
cracked black pepper to taste
about 1/4 cup unsalted butter