One possibly apocryphal story of the birth of the brownie is that early in the 20th century a Maine housewife, frustrated that her just-baked chocolate cake fell, cut and served the collapsed cake, to great family acclaim, in squares. Brownies became widely popular in the 1920s, when women learned how easy they were to make and food companies offered a wide range of new flavor combinations. Some featured oatmeal, some raisins, some coconut, molasses, peppermint or chocolate chips. But the most unusual new flavor arrived in the 1950s, courtesy of Miss Alice B. Toklas.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was, famously, not written by Alice at all. It was the handiwork of her long-time lover and companion, Gertrude Stein. The two lived together in Paris and rural France from 1908 until Stein’s death in 1946, during which time they broke bread with a high bohemian circle of friends including, among many others, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemmingway and Thornton Wilder. Alice signed a contract to write a cookbook in 1952. From the publisher’s perspective, a memoir of her life with Stein, with a few recipes thrown in, was a consummation devoutly to be wished. And the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook indeed did reminisce about life among the artists of Paris and the French countryside during a period that included two world wars; But it devoted more typeface to an analysis of housekeepers and cooks who worked for the pair over the years.
As the manuscript deadline approached Alice, now in her seventies, realized that she needed more recipes, and she began to solicit them from friends. One such was a painter named Brion Gysin, who gave Alice a recipe for what he called “hachigh fudge.” With no time to test the recipes contributed, Alice simply added them to her manuscript and forwarded it to her publisher. She may not have understood, given Gysin’s spelling, what the “fudge” contained. American editors spotted the questionable ingredient and eliminated the recipe, but the British edition didn’t, and hashish brownies were born. (Brownie may be a misnomer—this is indeed more like fudge.) Here is the recipe, with supplementary text probably from Mr. Gysin:
“This is the food of Paradise – of Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises: It might provide entertaining refreshment for a Ladies Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution). In Morocco it is thought to be good for warding off the common cold in damp weather and is, indeed, more effective if taken with large quantities of hot mint tea. Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter, ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Saint Theresa did, you can do better if you can bear to be ravished by un evanouissment reveille.
Take 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverized in a mortar. About a handful each of de-stoned dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts: chop these and mix them together. A bunch of cannabis sativa can be pulverized. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts, kneaded together. About a cup of sugar dissolved in a big pat of butter. Rolled into a cake and cut into pieces or made into balls about the size of a walnut, it should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient.
Obtaining the cannibis may present certain difficulties, but the variety known as cannabis sativa grows as a common weed, often unrecognized, everywhere in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa; besides being cultivated as a crop for the manufacture of rope. In the Americas, while often discouraged, its cousin, called cannabis indica, has been observed even in city window boxes. It should be picked and dried as soon as it has gone to seed and while the plant is still green.”