Roasted Poblano, Sweet Corn, Black Bean and Cheese Tamales


Illustration: Tram Nguyen


I have a tendency to overcomplicate things. For a casual basketball-viewing party, I might throw together a simple vegetarian chili to feed the crowd. And of course, I would need something to go with that chili, so I’d decide to make cornbread. But not just any old cornbread. I would want to bake the most authentic, delicious, pedigreed cornbread recipe known to man—something to impress my friends (who, to their credit, couldn’t care less about such things). But then there’s the problem with tracking down an “authentic” recipe. My people are from Southeast Asia, and my experience with American quickbreads growing up was mostly limited to those paradoxically greasy-yet-stale pucks they call biscuits at Popeye’s. When you’re trying to recreate food that you have no history with, it can seem like an almost insurmountable task.

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The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook


Over at BuzzFeed today, a bunch of prominent food personalities talked about which cookbooks they’d most recommend cooking all the way through. There were some interesting responses and some unsurprising ones (Tom Colicchio recommended his own book), but I was most intrigued by Ruth Reichl’s recommendation: The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Not only is Alice B. Toklas not exactly the number one name in culinary literature, but I had also already read about this book in Janet Malcolm’s “Two Lives,” which is a biographical book about Toklas and her longtime partner, Gertrude Stein (excerpted here). Malcolm remembers the book as a vestige of her days as a young, exceptionally pretentious New Yorker, and notes that one of the things she and her friends so loved about the book was “its waspishly magisterial tone, its hauteur and malice.” She writes:

As I leaf through my copy of the ‘Cook Book,’ the evidence of ancient food stains leads me to the recipes I actually cooked, and there are not many of them. Most of Toklas’s recipes were and remain too elaborate or too strange to attempt. (I did make—loving its perversity—her Gigot de la Clinique, which involved taking a large hypodermic needle and injecting a leg of lamb with orange juice twice daily for a week as it sat in the obligatory marinade of wine and herbs.) Underlinings and marginal comments also highlight the passages—such as those quoted above—whose tart snottiness gave me special delight in the fifties.”

My point here is that I am now even more curious about this book than I was previously and must rush out to buy it from my local independent bookstore. Will report back.