What does Alice B. Toklas have to do with Alice B. Toklas brownies, anyway?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
About as much as she had to do with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas — which is to say, not much. The 1933 “autobiography” was actually written by Gertrude Stein, Toklas’s lifelong companion and one of the legendary figures of the Parisian literary scene in the first half of the twentieth century. Similarly, the recipe for marijuana-laced brownies (actually it was a brownielike hashish fudge) that appeared in the 1954 Alice B. Toklas Cook Book wasn’t Toklas’s own but rather that of a wiseacre painter friend named Brion Gysin.
It all started when Alice signed a contract with Harper’s to write a cookbook in 1952. She was a pretty fair cook, but what Harper really hoped to get (and what by and large it got) was not so much recipes but tales of Toklas’s life with Gertrude Stein, who had died in 1946.
With the deadline only a few months away, Toklas, then in her mid-70s, found herself half a book shy. So she began soliciting recipes from her artsy friends. Gysin came up with “Haschich Fudge, which anyone could whip up on a rainy day.” By way of introduction he gushed, “This is the food of Paradise. … it might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR. … 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.” The active ingredient in the fudge was what Gysin called “canibus sativa,” more familiarly known as marijuana.
Alice, unfamiliar with “canibus” (at least as spelled by Gysin) and lacking the time to test the recipes, stuck her friend’s contribution into her manuscript and sent it off to the publisher. The editors at Harper’s spotted the suspicious ingredient and held the recipe out, but the publisher of the British edition didn’t. The press promptly went nuts. Tittered Time: “The late Poetess Gertrude (Tender Buttons) Stein and her constant companion and autobiographee, Alice B. Toklas, used to have gay old times together in the kitchen. Some of the unique delicacies that were whipped up will soon be cataloged … in a wildly epicurean tome … which is already causing excited talk on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps the most gone concoction (and also possibly a clue to some of Gertrude’s less earthly lines) was her hashish fudge.”
Alice, a believer to the end in her friend’s genius, was incensed that anyone should think it was artificially fueled. Still, as her friend Thorton Wilder told her, the recipe was the publicity stunt of the year and the expurgated American version of the cookbook received wide and generally respectful notice.
Just so you can see what all the fuss was about, here’s the recipe:
Take 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverized in a mortar. About a handful each of stone dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts: chop these and mix them together. A bunch of canibus sativa can be pulverized. 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. … It should be picked and dried as soon as it has gone to seed and while the plant is still green.
Cecil must sternly advise that you shouldn’t try this at home. If you do anyway, it hardly seems necessary to add, “Bon appetit.”
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