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Alice B. Toklas on cold soups
(from Spanish Gazpacho and on to Poland, Turkey, and Greece)
Here is, verbatim, a chapter entitled "Beautiful Soup" from The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, published in 1954. This thoughtful cook; San Francisco-born and habitue of Paris; shy and gutsy person; lover and companion of Gertrude Stein--she speaks volumes about the life and times of nations, as manifested in their evolving cuisines. She may not be completely right, but her sincerity and deep insight ring like a bell.
As an interesting addendum, Seville native José Luis Vivas has written to say that the calle de las Sierpes mentioned by Ms. Toklas has not changed much in 70 years...but the bookshop where she bought her cookbook finally went out of business last year, in 1998. In addition, Mr. Vivas glosses Ms. Toklas' misinterpretation of peasants travelling and preparing a rustic gazpacho--thinking that they "cook" it somehow by covering it with a damp cloth and leaving it in the sun. In fact, they are cooling it, thanks to the heat absorption caused by the evaporation of water. That principle has been used from time immemorial in hot Mediterranean areas by using unglazed earthenware vessels. Their high porosity allows the water they hold to ooze outwards, becoming immediately vapourized by the sun and cooling the remaining liquid. [In archeologic excavations, Mr. Vivas notes, you can very easily tell which vessels held water and which held wine or oil, as the latter two are always glazed on the inside--not on the outside in case you had to cool them!).
From murder to detection is not far. And here is a note on tracking a soup to its source. It was as a result of eating gazpacho in Spain lately that I came to the conclusion that recipes through conquests and occupations have travelled far.
After the first ineffable gazpacho was served to us in Malaga and an entirely different but equally exquisite one was presented in Seville the recipes for them had unquestionably become of greater importance than Grecos and Zurbarans, than cathedrals and museums. Surely the calle de las Sierpes, the liveliest, most seductive of streets, would produce the cook-book that would answer the burning consuming question of how to prepare a gazpacho. Down the narrow Sierpes where only pedestrians are permitted to pass, with its de luxe shops of fans, boots and gloves, toys and sweets, its smart men's clubs on either side whose members sit three tables deep sipping iced drinks and evaluating the young ladies who pass, at the end of the street was the large book shop remembered from a previous visit forty years before. Cook-books without number, exactly eleven, were offered for inspections but not a gazpacho in any index. Oh, said the clerk, gazpachos are only eaten in Spain by peasants and Americans. Choosing the book that seemed to have the fewest French recipes, I hurried back to Zurbaran and Greco, to museums and cathedrals.
At Cordoba there was another and suaver gazpacho, at Segovia one with a more vulgar appeal, outrageously coarse. There was nothing to do but to resign oneself to an experimental laboratory effort as soon as a kitchen was available.
Upon the return from Spain, my host at Cannes, a distinguished Polish-American composer, a fine gourmet and experienced cook, listened to the story of the futile chase for gazpacho recipes, for their possible ingredients.
Ah, said he, but you are describing a chlodnik, the Polish iced soup. Before he had time to prepare it for us a Turkish guest arrived and he hearing about the gazpachos and the chlodnik said, You are describing a Turkish cacik.
Perhaps, said I. It was confusing. He said he would prepare a cacik for us. It was to be sure an iced soup, but the Turk had not the temperament of a great cook, he should not have accepted olive oil as a substitute for the blander oil of sesame.
then we had the chlodnik, a really great dish worthy of its Spanish cousins. But that was not the end.
There was the Greek tarata. Yes indeed, it was confusing, until one morning it occurred to me that it was evident each one of these frozen soups was not a separate creation. Had the Poles passed the recipe to their enemy the Turks at the siege of Vienna or had it been brought back to Poland much earlier than that from Turkey or Greece? Or had it been brought back by a crusader from Turkey? Had it gone to Sicily from Greece and then to Spain? It is a subject to be pursued. Well, here are the seven Mediterranean soups.
Mix these ingredients thoroughly and add drop by drop 4 Tablespoons olive oil. Add 1 Spanish onion cut in tissue-paper-thin slices; 1 sweet red or green pepper, seeds removed and cut in minute cubes; 1 cucumber; and 4 Tablespoons fresh white breadcrumbs.
Add 3 cups water, mix thoroughly. Serve ice-cold.
These muleteers, she says, carry with them on their journeyings a flat earthenware dish--and garlic, olive oil, tomatoes and cucumbers, also dry bread which they crumble. Between two stones by the wayside they grind the garlic with a little salt and then add the oil. This mixture is rubbed all round the inside of the earthenware vessel. Then they slice the tomatoes and cucumbers and put alternating layers of each in the dish, interspersing the layers with layers of breadcrumbs and topping off the four tiers with more breadcrumbs and more oil. This done and prepared, they take a wet cloth, wrap it round the dish and leave it in a sunny place. The evaporation cooks the contents and when the cloth is dry the meal is ready. Too simple, my dear Watson.