November 3, 2011
In 1934, author and modern art collector Gertrude Stein began a tour of the United States. Her book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a memoir written by Stein from the perspective of her longtime lover, was generating considerable buzz. Stein, an American who called Paris home, stopped off in 37 cities to give lectures, solidifying her celebrity status in the course of six months. And while Toklas was never in the limelight, she was always in tow, and people grew fond of her and suggested she mount a project of her own. Toklas came out with The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook in 1954, a memoir of her own told from the perspective of the kitchen.
It’s an appropriate filter because, in the kitchen, Toklas was in her element. ”Gertrude only ate—she loved to eat—but she was not a cook,” says Wanda Corn, curator of Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery. “She is never mentioned with food—that is totally Alice’s domain. Alice regularly cooked on the cook’s night off and that’s how she and Gertrude started their relationship. Alice would make American food for Gertrude, which she was feeling a little nostalgic for. Alice was also a really demanding supervisor of the cook. Shopping had to be done ‘just so’ and at the very right places, veggies had to all be picked that morning. It was the one room, she said, where nobody else was allowed.”
Toklas’s cookbook, first published in 1954, moves beyond being a simple collection of recipes; the author pairs food with the people and events that highlight her life. She recounts her childhood and formative culinary experiences by way of foods prepared by her mother’s cook, who is remembered through fritters and ice cream. Dinners with artists—including an anecdote about serving bass to Picasso—and their adventures trying to continue their habit of eating well even during wartime are vividly recounted. Even the 1934 American tour is remembered by way of food. Stein and Toklas were concerned that the food—which they were told was stranger than the people, predominantly consisting of canned goods—would not be agreeable, and they had a friend send them a menu from one of the hotel restaurants where they would be staying. “The variety of dishes was a pleasant surprise,” Toklas writes, “even if the tinned vegetable cocktails and fruit salads occupied a preponderant position. Consolingly, there were honey-dew melons, soft-shell crabs and prime roasts of beef. We would undertake the great adventure.”
The cookbook acquired a degree of notoriety on account of a token recipe for hashish fudge, “which anyone can whip up on a rainy day.” Toklas cheekily describes this blend of fruits, nuts, herbs and spices as “an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR.” Omitted in the first American edition, a second edition surfaced in the early 1960s with the fudge recipe restored—just in time for the burgeoning hippie movement. “Alice Toklas Brownies” soon became a catch-all term for chocolatey baked goods laced with contraband. But Toklas is prudent in her instructions. “It should be eaten with care,” she advises. “Two pieces are quite sufficient.”
In spite of this particular claim to fame, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook deserves a much closer look. “First of all, it’s a great memoir,” Corn says. “Her stories are fabulous—it’s definitely worth a read. But also I’ve been eating her food. They served it at the opening of the NPG show. It was fantastic. The beef bourguignon was spectacular, as was the chicken dish.” Indeed, there seems to be a special something about Alice Toklas chicken. When waxing rhapsodic about her prowess in the kitchen, chef and New York Times food writer James Beard remarked that she “had endless specialties, but her chicken dishes were especially magnificent. The secret of her talent was great pains and a remarkable palate.”
For those of you wishing to sample Toklas’ culinary tastes, her cookbook remains in print. For those in the D.C. area and are looking for dinner plans, today is the last day that Proof, located across the street from the National Portrait Gallery, is offering a four-course menu inspired by Toklas and her personal cuisine. The exhibition Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories remains on view at the National Portrait Gallery through January 22, 2012.
August 23, 2011
In the criminal justice system, those who live outside the law sometimes meet their downfall through their relationship with food. These special cases keep cropping up, and some themes even begin to emerge, be it Jell-O-centric criminal behavior or the nefarious activities of ice cream peddlers. Take your fill of a few more stories from the underbelly. (Here is the apropos sound effect if you’d like to play it as you read each entry.)
Port St. Lucie, Florida. July, 2011. A minor beef.
It was a drug deal that spun out of control. Timethy Morrison shelled out $100 for marijuana, and the dealer drove up and handed Morrison a white bag through his car window and began to drive off. Inspection of the bag’s contents, however, revealed nothing but ground beef, and Morrison promptly turned around and fired several shots at the dealer’s Volvo and fled the scene. He was later apprehended and charged with attempted murder, burglary, escape, possession of marijuana and providing a false name to a law enforcement officer.
Kittery, Maine. March 2010. “Redemption is a dirty business.”
Many states add a 5-cent deposit to the price of bottled and canned drinks—and you can get that deposit back if you return your empties a redemption facility. But in addition to the consumer getting back a bit of change, the facility is paid a handling fee on the order of a few cents for every can processed. It is illegal for facilities to process out-of-state containers, since a state’s beverage industry is paying back those deposits. But a at a few cents a pop, who would put the effort into working the system? Attention turned to Green Bee Redemption in Kittery Maine, when Dennis Reed of New Hampshire rolled up with some 11,000 empty bottles and cans. Reed, along with the facility’s owners, Thomas and Megan Woodard, were all charged with fraud. During the Woodards’ trial, it was revealed that they arranged for Reed, along with Green Bee employee Thomas Prybot of Massachusetts, to collect large quantities of cans which would then be dropped off at the Maine facility after hours. Thomas was found guilty of stealing more than $10,000 by way of processing the illegal empties while his wife was acquitted. Reed is slated to stand trial in October while Prybot was not prosecuted for his role in the crime in exchange for his testimony. It is estimated that some $8 million worth of bottle fraud takes place in Maine every year.
Holyoke, Massachusetts. August, 2010. A load of baloney.
Postal inspectors in Puerto Rico had been working with authorities to try to crack down on illegal drugs being sent via mail to the United States—and their attentions turned to Juan Rodriguez of Holyoke, Massachusetts, after several parcels were sent to his home in May and June of 2010. When the post office alerted Holyoke police about another shipment being sent to Rodriguez, narcotics dogs detected the presence of drugs and an undercover agent delivered the package. After the package was signed for, police raided the residence—and it turned out that Rodriguez had a way with b-o-l-o-g-n-a. About 2.2 pounds of cocaine, worth about $100,000 on the street, had been hidden inside a hollowed-out loaf of luncheon meat. Rodriguez was arrested and charged with cocaine trafficking.
Webster, Massachusetts. July, 2008. Get ‘em while they’re hot.
On July 27, 2008, a tractor trailer traveling on Interstate 395 was involved in an accident and overturned, spilling its contents—a shipment of live lobster—and tow-truck operator Robert Moscoffian was called to the scene. Prosecutors allege that Moscoffian also called Arnold A. Villatico, owner of Periwinkles & Giorgio’s restaurant to the scene, who drove to the site with his refrigerated truck, and the pair took crates of lobster from the scene, with an estimated value of some $200,000, and sold them to local restaurants. Some of the upscale crustaceans were returned to the authorities, and the contraband lobsters discovered at Periwinkles & Giorgio’s were released into Boston Harbor. Indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit larceny, larceny over $250 and selling raw fish without a license, Moscoffian and Villatico are currently slated to stand trial in 2012.
June 20, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked you to share your best, worst or funniest dining-out experiences, from the perspective of either the served or the server. Our first essay reveals just how educational a job in food service can be.
Dana Bate is a writer living in Washington, D.C. She has produced, reported or written for PBS, Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and others. You can learn more about her at danabate.com.
What About Bob?
By Dana Bate
I should have known there was something odd about Bob from the start. When I met him in the summer of 2003, I was fresh out of college and looking for a part-time waitressing gig. Bob managed a small, upscale restaurant in suburban Philadelphia, and he agreed to meet with me on a hot and muggy June afternoon. I had never interviewed for a position as a waitress before. I didn’t know what to expect.
When I walked into the air-conditioned chill of the restaurant, the room lit only by a sliver of light from the glass block windows, Bob emerged from the back. His skin appeared almost translucent against his thick eyebrows and jet-black hair, and his eyes sunk deep into his skull. He looked a bit like a poor man’s Jonathan Rhys Meyers in vampire form—and I mean that in the worst way possible. Why I didn’t immediately head for the door I will never know.
Bob sat me down, and after chatting for a few minutes about my waitressing credentials (or, rather, my complete lack thereof) he offered me the job. Then he proceeded to extol, in a very animated fashion, the virtues of a macrobiotic diet—as one does when hiring a woman to bus plates and memorize daily specials.
Although I had recently graduated from an Ivy League school and prided myself on my book smarts, I lacked street smarts, and so none of Bob’s quirks raised any red flags. Maybe all restaurant managers dressed in black from head to toe and wore silver and onyx rings the size of Cerignola olives. Maybe all restaurant managers offered prospective employees a copy of An Instance of the Fingerpost. What did I know?
Bob promised to show me the ropes, and as the weeks passed, I picked up tips I surely wouldn’t have gathered on my own. For example, when a couple is on a romantic date, it’s a good idea for the manager to pull a chair up to their table and talk to them for a solid twenty minutes. The couple will love it—or so Bob assured me.
Also, disappearing in the basement to “check on the walk-in” every half hour is totally normal – nay, expected. I had so much to learn.
A month or two into my waitressing stint, a new waitress named Beth joined the team. She had fiery red hair and had waitressed for many years at another restaurant down the street. Beth took grief from no one. To her, my naiveté must have been painful.
One night, as we rushed to flip the tables for our next set of reservations, Beth looked up at me.
“Where the hell is Bob?” she asked.
“He’s checking on the walk-in.” I paused. “He kind of does that a lot.”
Beth chuckled. “Yeah, and I’m sure he comes back with a lot more energy, right?”
Come to think of it, Bob did always come back with a little more lift in his step after his trips to the basement. I knew he smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. Maybe it was a nicotine high?
Beth cackled at my ignorance. She tapped on her nose with the tip of her finger and sniffed loudly. “I think we’re dealing with a different chemical here.”
Wait—Bob did cocaine? Could this be true? I considered it. A drug addiction would explain his chattiness with customers and his frequent disappearances. It would also probably explain why I came in one Monday to find that Bob, on a whim, had spent the previous day buffing the copper siding of the bar, alone, just for fun.
As I let this information sink in, Bob emerged from the basement, his lips and nose caked in white powder. My eyes widened. It was true: Bob was doing drugs.
I realized then how naïve I was—how college had broadened my horizons intellectually but had done little to prepare me for the realities of life outside the ivory tower. Sure, I had friends who’d dabbled in illegal substances here and there, but I’d never known an addict. For me, those people existed only in movies and books and after-school specials. But this wasn’t some juicy story in Kitchen Confidential. Bob was real, and so were his problems. I had even more to learn than I thought.
Beth smirked and shook her head as she watched my innocence melt away before her eyes.
“Welcome to the real world, honey,” she said. “It’s one hell of a ride.”
December 29, 2009
The link between marijuana and an increased appetite has been well documented by both scientific and casual researchers. Even before states began passing medical marijuana laws, some doctors were quietly recommending the drug to cancer, AIDS and other patients with nausea and poor appetite.
New findings from the Monell Chemical Senses Center and Kyushu University in Japan suggest that marijuana may enhance the sweet taste of foods by acting directly on taste receptors, rather than just in the brain, as had previously been shown. The work enhances scientists’ understanding of how THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, acts on the appetite, and could eventually lead to treatments for obesity or lack of appetite.
Fourteen states currently have medical marijuana laws, even though the drug is still illegal under federal law, and some legislators are pushing to legalize it outright. In parts of California, the first state to pass a medical marijuana law, in 1996, marijuana dispensaries have become nearly as common as liquor stores.
But what is it about marijuana that causes “the munchies”—not so much actual hunger as an intense craving for food, especially of the sweet, salty or fatty variety? The new findings from Monell report that endocannabanoids, compounds that are structurally similar to the cannabinoids found in cannabis sativa (marijuana) but occur naturally in the body, act directly on the tongue’s taste receptors to enhance the perception of sweetness.
Previously, scientists had believed that cannabinoids regulated appetite mainly by bonding to specific receptors in the brain. As explained in a 2001 article in Nature, researchers found that they could depress appetite in mice by genetically modifying them to be deficient in cannabinoid receptors. Later studies have led to greater understanding of the relationship between the brain’s cannabinoid receptors and the hormone leptin, which was found to inhibit hunger.
The Monell study involved a series of experiments on mice to determine their behavioral, cellular and neural responses to sweet taste stimuli before and after the administration of endocannabinoids. In every case, the mice went coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs (well, technically, their “sweet taste responses were enhanced by endocannabinoids”). Interestingly, the effect was not observed with sour, salty, bitter or umami taste stimuli.
The press release from Monell notes that, “sweet taste receptors are also found in the intestine and the pancreas, where they help regulate nutrient absorption, insulin secretion and energy metabolism. If endocannabinoids also modulate the responses of pancreatic and intestinal sweet receptors, the findings may open doors to the development of novel therapeutic compounds to combat metabolic diseases such as obesity and diabetes.”
Last year, another study found that THC induced cancer cells to kill themselves through autophagy, or self-digestion. As more than one commenter gleefully observed, marijuana gives even cancer the munchies.