murder in the kitchen

In the her eponymous cookbook (1954), Alice B. Tolkas writes that “cook-books have always intrigued and seduced me. When I was still a dilettante in the kitchen they held my attention, even the dull ones, from cover to cover, the way crime and murder stories did Gertrude Stein” (37). In her chapter entitled “Murder in the Kitchen” Tolkas’ speaks of the separation between images of eating–“food is far too pleasant to combine with horror”– and the real acts of the kitchen that are full of crimes and killing. During the conference Arts graphiques culinaires in Paris(18&19 March 2019, convened by Sandrine Ruhlmann) food historian and anthropologist Frédérique Desbuissons reminded me that the sounds of a real kitchen are often violent ones. This is a theme that can be explored in many ways. Most importantly, though is the message not to use a sonic perspective of food to add only to a pastoral depiction of cooking, one separated from the real conditions of food production.

Let’s have a look into Alice B. Tolkas’s personal account of learning to cook in Paris during WWII:

“The only way to learn to cook is to cook, and for me, as for so many others, it suddenly and unexpectedly became a disagreeable necessity to have to do it when war came and Occupation followed. It was in those conditions of rationing and shortage that I learned not only to cook seriously but to buy food in a restricted market and not to take too much time in doing it, since there were so many more important and amusing things to do. It was at this time, then, that murder in the kitchen began.

The first victim was a lively carp brought to the kitchen in a covered basket from which nothing could escape. The fish man who sold me the carp said he had no time to kill, scale or clean it, nor would he tell me with which of these horrible necessities one began. It wasn’t difficult to know which was the most repellent. So quickly to the murder and have it over with[…] Should I not dispatch my first victim with a blow on the head from a heavy mallet? After an appraising glance at the lively fish it was evident he would escape attempts aimed at his head. A heavy sharp knife came to my mind as the classic, the perfect choice, so grasping, with my left hand well covered with a dishcloth, for the teeth might be sharp, the lower jaw of the carp, and the knife in my right, I carefully, deliberately found the base of its vertebral column and plunged the knife in. I let go my grasp and looked to see what had happened. Horror of horrors. The carp was dead, killed, assassinated, murdered in the first, second and third degree. Limp, I fell into a chair, with my hands still unwashed reached for a cigarette, lighted it, and waited for the police to come and take me into custody. After a second cigarette my courage returned and I went to prepare poor Mr Carp for the table.

The Cookbook of Alice B. Tolkas (1954), pages 37-38.

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