A really good thing to read if you have any interest in the gossipy stories about Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne and the circle of Bohemian painters Gertrude Stein collected is “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.” Toklas was Gertrude Stein’s life-time companion, an amused observer of the early-20th century Montmartre atelier scene, and great cook. (Stein wrote this book, but insisted “everything about it is Toklas except the authorship.”)
To read this biography is to learn that Matisse was virile, his wife not so much, but she made an excellent potted hare, and finagled the first sale of a Matisse work to Gertrude Stein and her brother, which began a lifetime of friendship and patronage.
Fernande, Picasso’s deadly dull but gorgeous girlfriend, could only talk about makeup, dogs and hats. Fernande apparently believed a hat was a success only if it drew street attention. This famously dolorous early Picasso lover is comically tolerated by both Stein and Toklas. Stein is always sending Toklas off to keep Fernande busy, while she and Picasso talk about serious subjects. Picasso always seems to be in a state of being driven out of his mind by Fernande’s vapidity, but is unable to abandon what a great model she is, or something else. She also seems alarmingly incapable of taking care of herself, and Picasso feels guilty enough to keep her on. At one point Picasso has ended it with Fernande, but sets her up in an apartment on Montmartre, hoping she can give Americans French lessons to earn a living (and he can therefore quit with helping her.) Stein believes if Fernande is OK than Pablo’s OK, so she sends Toklas off to be Fernande’s first student, first of two, ever.
Stein’s artist friends almost all showed in the great salon shows in the Grand Palais, the glittering glass vaulted building steps from the Seine. But Toklas didn’t like the building. She says that before the war, the Independent show was always in a building that was put up just for the event, and taken down afterward. “They were always putting up and taking down buildings in Paris in those days,” Toklas says. “Human nature is so permanent in France they can afford to be temporary with their buildings.”
About the residents of her adopted country, Toklas says, “the French are like their Bourbon Kings: they learn nothing; they forget nothing.”
Gertrude Stein died in 1946 at 72. Toklas died in 1967 at age 89. While Stein had established a trust upon which Toklas could live, and they had shared their amassed collection of 27 Picassos, seven Juan Grises, and Matisses, a legal battle prevented Toklas from accessing the collection. She died penniless in a rented flat in Paris, supported by the generosity of friends.
In the New York Times obituary, James Beard wrote, “Alice was one of the really great cooks of all time. She went all over Paris to find the right ingredients for her meals. She had endless specialities, but her chicken dishes were especially magnificent.”
This chicken roasted with oranges and port is a favorite in our home. It’s perfect. Go ahead and make it twice in a week because, as Toklas once wrote, “if perfection is good, more perfection is better.”
Alice B. Toklas Chicken
Serves 4 to 6
1 medium-sized (about 3½ pounds) roasting chicken, preferably free-range
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup ruby port
1/2 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Zest of 1 orange, grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
When you bring the chicken home from the market, unwrap it and sprinkle it generously with salt. Cover and refrigerate it until ready to cook. Bring the bird to room temperature before cooking. Do not rub off the salt.
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
In a large ovenproof skillet warm the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Brown the chicken breast side down, for 3 to 5 minutes then turn it over and brown the other side for 3 to 5 minutes.
Place the skillet in the oven and roast the chicken for 45 minutes. Pour the port over the chicken and baste it. Roast for 10 minutes more, than add the orange juice and baste again. Roast for about 5 minutes more. The chicken is done when the juices of the thigh run clear when pierced with the blade of a sharp knife, or when the thigh wiggles easily. Remove the chicken from the oven, transfer it to a cutting board, and let it rest as you make the sauce.
Skim as much fat off the top of the juices in the skillet as you can and discard. Place the skillet over medium heat and add the cream, stirring up the crispy bits on the bottom. Add about half the orange zest and allow the sauce to reduce as you stir constantly for a few minutes.
Carve the chicken and transfer it to a serving platter. Pour some of the sauce over the chicken and transfer the rest into a gravy boat or small pitcher and serve it at the table. Sprinkle the remaining orange zest over the chicken.
Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought column weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.