The Reading Room

Gertrude Stein’s Cook

Breaking eggs with Gertrude Stein and Henri Matisse..

31-Studio_Coburn_Gertrude_SteinThe life of Gertrude Stein is a remarkable one, a pioneer of modern literature and a renowned collector of modern art, she was at the very heart of artistic life in Paris’ Left Bank where she played host to some of the giants of twentieth century art and literature.

A life well documented, from her lesbian relationships to falling out with Hemmingway, the break-down in her relationship with her brother to the friendships and buying of new pieces of art by Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Renoir and many others cemented Stein’s place in twentieth century culture for eternity. She was a woman who did not suffer fools, a powerful, commanding presence who stuck to her principles regardless of personal cost. But for all of that, she, like so many others was no match for her cook.

Elizabeth David, in her wonderful ‘A Book of Mediterranean Food’ (1950) recounts a description by Stein herself of the French cook she employed during her time in Paris in her book ‘The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas’. Hélène, by the time of this particular instance had worked for Stein for over three years and had proven to be an accomplished cook and housekeeper who, like Stein, was a woman who seldom held back an opinion. One visitor to the Stein household who annoyed Hélène in particular was Matisse:

“She (Hélène) said a Frenchman should not stay unexpectedly to a meal, particularly if he asked the servant beforehand what there was for dinner, She said foreigners had a perfect right to do these things but not a Frenchman, and Matisse had once done it. So when Miss Stein once said to her, “Monsieur Matisse is staying for dinner this evening” she would say, “In that case I will not make an omelette but fry the eggs. It takes the same number of eggs and the same amount of butter but it shows less respect, and he will understand”

How wonderful!

Extract taken from ‘The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas’ by Gertrude Stein and ‘A Book of Mediterranean Food’ by Elizabeth David.


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