“From the little old lady who gave you hash fondant,” was the headline in the February 1974 issue of Vogue. The profile of the late Alice B. Toklas turned out to be more of a tease than to deliver, as none of the recipes accompanying the article actually contained weed. Yet Toklas – who had died seven years earlier at the age of 89 – was, as the writer described her, “an epitome of counterculture”.
Miss Toklas, in her primitive clothing and strict expression on black and white photographs, appears to be an unlikely proponent of being high. Thanks to a hash fondant recipe published in the UK version of The Alice B. Tokla’s Cook Book in 1954, Tokla’s smart, brittle-looking, mustached face became the icon of pot brownie, America’s first-generation edible.
Perhaps the peak of their cannabis notoriety came with the Hollywood rom-com “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!” Of 1968 in which Peter Sellers plays a staunch lawyer who inadvertently doused brownies with weed (shaken like dried oregano in a bowl of batter whipped from a Pillsbury box mix), causing a rethink about the priorities of his life.
Toklas’ journey to cannabis fame began in 1952, at a time when Toklas was desperate. Gertrude Stein, her de facto wife (the women had declared themselves married in 1910, although France, where they lived, did not legalize same-sex marriage until 2013), was dead. Although Stein was arguably the most famous American writer of her generation, and stacks of With paintings by Picasso and Matisse filling her Paris apartment, Tokla needed money. Now, as a 73-year-old widow, surrounded by a large art collection, she refused to dismantle Stein’s memory out of love for Stein, her situation had become dire. But Toklas had another collection that she hoped would prove almost as valuable as the Picassos: their recipes.
Photo courtesy Bettman / Getty
Food was one of Stein’s great passions, and Toklas was happy to cook for her. Duck in port wine, braised chicken filled with noodles, nougat ice cream, raspberry flummery: she would summarize the recipes for these dishes in one book. A friend in New York introduced her to an agent through letters. The publisher Harper and Brothers agreed to buy her proposal for the “Alice B. Toklas Cookbook” and promised to send her a contract and an advance payment in return for a partial manuscript. Toklas realized that the money would keep the wolves from circling.
But in March 1953 she tried to meet her deadline. A 30,000 word piece of the manuscript was due in April and another 40,000 should be delivered in May. Toklas had never written a book before. She thought it was a shame. “You … see how difficult it is,” Toklas wrote to a friend.
Toklas feared that she might not have enough prescriptions to make her word count. For help, she wrote to the large and varied circle of friends and acquaintances she and Stein had made in the Bohemian expat underground: actors, composers, painters and models. She asked everyone – Picasso’s former lover Dora Maar, Turkish painter Nejad Devrim, actress Fania Marinoff – to contribute a recipe or two.
“One chapter (how pretentious it is for me to write this),” she told a correspondent with Toklas’ typical self-obliteration, “will be devoted to recipes from friends – undoubtedly the only merit in the deadly boring offering.”
One such friend was the 37-year-old English painter and writer Brion Gysin. He had met Stein and Toklas in the 1930s but hadn’t kept in touch. In 1950 Gysin, who was stuck in his art, could not find a publisher and was depressed by café life in Paris, reached the widowed Toklas, who encouraged him grandmotherly to persevere. And when the American expat composer and author Paul Bowles met Gysin in Paris and invited him to stay at his house in the northern Moroccan port city of Tangier, Toklas told Gysin to leave. He planned to visit Morocco for a summer; he stayed for 23 years.
Tangier had all the remains of a colonial city (Morocco was still a French protectorate) and was seething with American and European artists, ex-pats and wealthy tourists. Gysin, who was gay, recorded with an aspiring young painter, Mohamed Hamri. The match turned out to be fateful as it was Hamri who showed Gysin’s local customs and culture, including how to wrap a pipe with the cannabis-tobacco blend known as kif. Gysin wrote a long, ecstatic manuscript on the subject. It was the same enthusiastic tone with which Gysin described the recipe for hashish fudge (spelled “hashich”) that he sent Toklas for her book.
The recipe for Hashish Fudge
“This is the food of paradise – the artificial paradises of Baudelaire,” wrote Gysin. “It could be fun refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a DAR chapter meeting. In Morocco, it is considered good for warding off colds in damp weather and is indeed more effective when taken with large amounts of hot mint tea. Euphoria and beaming laughter; Ecstatic daydreams and expansions of one’s own personality on several simultaneous levels are completely to be expected. Almost everything Saint Theresa did can be done better if you can bear to be enchanted by ‘un évanouissement reveillé’ [a state of fainting while fully awake]. ‘”
“Artificial paradises” is a reference to the book of essays by the French poet Charles Baudelaire on opium and hashish, published in 1860: “Les Paradis Artificiels”. Gysin notes that getting hashish could be a little difficult for anyone outside of Morocco, although “the variety known as Canibus [sic] Sativa grows as a common weed that is often not recognized. “In America, he says, his cousin is“ Canibus [sic] Indica has even been seen in city window boxes. “Gysin obviously had a lark.
Of course, its confection isn’t actually a real fudge (which usually contains milk or cream and implies a smooth texture) and it doesn’t even require hash. In fact, it is a variation of the traditional Moroccan aromatic kif candy Majoun: Smen (a type of salty ghee) that is boiled with cannabis, strained, cooled and re-cooked with spices, dates, honey, nuts and orange blossom water.
Toklas was unaware that Gysin’s recipe produced psychoactive results – and even forgot the recipe was in her book. In October 1954, weeks before The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book was published, Time Magazine got a whiff of scandal in galley form.
“The late poet Gertrude Stein … and her constant companion … Alice B. Toklas used to have gay old days together in the kitchen,” was the gossip article from Time. “Perhaps Alice’s most vanished invention (and also a possible reference to some of Gertrude’s less earthy lines) was her hashish fondant.”
Toklas didn’t take Time’s drug embarrassment well. “I was … angry,” she wrote to a friend, “until I found out it’s really in the cookbook!” She went on to write: “It is my ignorance not to have suspected what the few leaves were – of course I did not know their Latin name.” The laughter, she said, was on her.
Ban makes advertising
Your publisher was nowhere near as amused. In 1951, the US Congress passed the Boggs Act. Mandatory drug abuse convictions were imposed – a first offender convicted of cannabis possession was punished with a minimum sentence of two to ten years and a ruinous fine of up to $ 20,000. Harper and Brothers sent a telegram to the US Attorney General asking: Would it be a crime to publish a prescription that praised cannabis and sent out the curious to get some? In fact, it wasn’t illegal to just publish one such recipe. Even so, Harper was hideous and deleted Gysin’s recipe from the American edition (even though it appeared in the British version).
Even suppressed, “Hashich Fudge” sealed Toklas’ reputation. The haze of fame surrounding “The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book” made Americans curious. “It sold seven thousand copies in its first month in the US,” writes Justin Spring in “The Gourmands’ Way,” “and it was in fourth print within three weeks of its release.”
Toklas received her royalties, and the mischievous-looking 77-year-old Bohemian widow of the famous Gertrude Stein assumed the status of an underground heroine. Toklas didn’t mind. Writer Thornton Wilder thought the whole business made his old friend look like a shrewd genius.
“Thornton said no one would believe in my innocence,” she wrote to a friend after “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook” became an instant classic “because I did the best publicity stunt of the year.”
Originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE