Encyclopedia Womannica

Tastemakers: Alice B. Toklas

Episode Summary

Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967) was author of one of the bestselling cookbooks of all time, a member of the avant-garde artistic movement, and Gertrude Stein’s partner.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s tastemaker served as host to many of the famous authors and artists you learned about in school. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlie Chaplin, Picasso, and more all flocked to the home she shared with her partner. But she was more than a great host. Her culinary and artistic skill earned much acclaim later in her life. Let’s talk about Alice B. Toklas.

Alice Babette Toklas was born in San Francisco, California, on April 30, 1877. Her father was a Polish Jewish immigrant who moved to America in the 1860’s and started work as a merchant. 

Alice’s family moved to Seattle when she was 13. When Alice finished public school in the city, she studied piano at the University of Washington. But in the late 1890’s, Alice’s mother fell gravely ill and Alice and  her family moved back to San Francisco. 

In 1897, Alice’s mother passed away. She was 41 years old. 

Less than a decade later, a catastrophic earthquake struck San Francisco. Soon after, Alice had a fateful meeting that would change the course of her life. She met Michael and Sarah Stein, the sister-in-law and brother of Gertrude Stein. Though the couple lived in Paris, they were in San Francisco to assess damage to one of their properties.

Alice found herself taken by their stories of Europe and decided to move abroad. When she arrived in Paris in 1907, she met Gertrude, who would become a renowned author. Both women had spent years troubled by their sexuality, but they soon decided to move in together and start what would become a lifelong relationship.

Alice and Gertrude were inseparable. Alice was a key influence to much of Gertrude’s famous work, acting as the author’s secretary, editor, organizer, and even chef. She maintained this hidden role until Gertrude published Alice’s life story under the joking title, “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.” It became Gertrude’s best selling book, filled with stories and insider information about some of the most famous artists of the time.

Throughout their relationship, Alice and Gertrude hosted salons that drew in notable authors and artists. Alice’s quiet, reserved personality made an impression and she was described in the memoirs or writings of some of the famous attendees.

In 1946, Gertrude passed away.

Because Gertrude and Alice’s relationship wasn’t legally recognized, Gertrude’s relatives were able to remove much of the couple’s art collection from Alice’s house. Alice started writing to make a living.

In 1954, Alice published The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. The book is a combination of recipes and the stories behind them from her days in the avant garde artistic movement. Recipes were the perfect vehicle for Alice’s story. She had spent much of her time in Paris searching for the perfect ingredients and combinations. Notable French chefs called her palate “remarkable.”

Alice first wrote the cookbook instead of a memoir. She was hesitant to write a real autobiography in deference to the book Gertrude had already published about her.

The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook would become one of the best selling cookbooks of all time. The most famous recipe appears in the first edition alone; It’s for “Haschich Fudge,” a chocolatey dish that incorporates nuts, spices, and cannabis! 

Alice’s writing didn’t stop there. In 1958, she published a second cookbook, called Aromas and Flavors of Past and Present. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers like The New Republic and The New York Times, and finally  published her own autobiography in 1963, called What Is Remembered. The book suddenly ends with Gertrude Stein’s death, emphasizing the couple’s deep connection. 

The end of Alice’s life was difficult. She struggled with failing health and poverty before passing away in 1967, at age 89. Alice is buried next to Gertrude in Paris.

Though she was mostly known for entertaining famous guests, Alice was  a creative genius certainly worth celebrating.

Tune in us tomorrow to hear about another tastemaker, we’ll be talking about a true pioneer of Californian cuisine.

Shout out to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!