Space Brownies: Alice B. Toklas, Brion Gysin, William Burroughs

May 16, 2012

Gertrude Stein was dead at that point; she had died in 1947.  In 1952 Alice signed a contract with Harper’s to write a cookbook. Then in her 70s, Alice was not as quick with her pen as she had hoped; it was a struggle to fill the pages.  Help was needed from friends, and she was glad to get a recipe for “Haschich Fudge” from Brion Gysin, a painter, writer, and sound artist. Gysin described the fudge (more like a brownie) as the “food of Paradise,” conducive to “ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes.” The active ingredient was something he called “canibus sativa.” And he cautioned: “Two pieces are quite sufficient. Obtaining the canibus may present certain difficulties.”

The recipe was pulled from the American edition by the eagle-eyed editors, but the unexpurgated English edition went through, and became an instant sensation. Alice now had her own claim to fame.  The 1968 film, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (about hippie counterculture, starring Peter Sellers) used the brownie as a key plot device.

Brion Gysin, of course, was known for other things, especially his collaboration with William S. Burroughs on the cut-up method (taking a finished text and cutting it into pieces with a few words on each, then reassembling all the pieces into something new).   “When you cut into the present,” he said, “the future leaks out.”  Burroughs used this method extensively in his Nova Trilogy, otherwise known as the Cut-up Trilogy. Remixes and mash-ups have now gotten us used to this, but it was radical when first proposed.

It’s nice to think of that developmental arc, and Alice being a part of it.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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