Michele Roberts remembers "haschich fudge"

The reissue of a favourite book provides a chance to revisit "haschich fudge", writes <strong>Michel

One reason to buy The Alice B Toklas Cookbook, in student days, was Toklas's recipe called "haschich fudge", prudently included in her chapter "Recipes From Friends". The existence of this recipe meant that the book was always being borrowed, and never returned. Now that Serif has reissued its 1994 edition of this classic, we can check out that first, careless rapture (of eating, of reading), which Toklas explicitly compares to the mystical swoons experienced by religious leaders: "Almost anything Saint Theresa did, you can do better if you can bear to be ravished by 'un evanouissement reveille'. . . Obtaining the canibus may present certain difficulties, but the variety known as canibus sativa grows as a common weed, often unrecognised, everywhere in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa; besides being cultivated as a crop for the manufacture of rope." The eagle-eyed Yvette once spotted my hemp crop, grown from seeds obtained from a birdseed catalogue, flourishing in an out-of-the-way corner, and demanded to know what these weeds were. I said they were a species of English tomato plant. She snorted and stomped off.

Rereading Toklas, I noticed her dry humour, her willingness to experiment with deep-fried concoctions that today seem almost disgusting, and her reliance on servants. Pre-war, she and Gertrude Stein could take cooks for granted. These women addressed her as Madame, but are known, themselves, only by their first names. Shocking to us, but that was the custom then. In her chapter "Servants in France", Toklas describes moving in with Stein and meeting her servant Helene, who "knew all the niceties of making menus. If you wished to honour a guest you offered him an omelette souffle with an elaborate sauce, if you were indifferent to him an omelette with mushrooms or fines herbes - but if you wished to be insulting you made fried eggs". Helene had her own version of dry humour: "She supposed that there would be no painters in the United States, since they all came to Paris to learn to paint. When I asked her what she thought Americans did do, her answer was that most of them must be dentists."

Toklas teaches us history by telling us about her lean times with food. She and Stein were both Jewish, and stayed in France throughout the Occupation. Struggles with rationing and the black market are wryly recounted, plus visits from a friend in the Resistance. One day Toklas made him raspberry flummery with gelatine. He said how much his wife would love some gelatine; she had none. Toklas gave him 20 sheets and he was "more grateful than the small gift justified. It was not until some time later that he told us . . . he had needed it desperately for making false papers".