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Who Was Alice B. Toklas And Why Did Peter Sellers Love Her?

Culture | November 15, 2017

Left: Peter Sellers comes face-to-tattooed thigh with the young hip generation in the film's poster art. Right: Alice B. Toklas photographed by Man Ray. Sources: Amazon.com, Detroit Institute Of Arts Museum

In 1968, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, a Peter Sellers comedy, captured some countercultural credibility with its title -- while also confessing its own squareness. Loving Alice B. Toklas is a fine idea, providing you know Alice B. Toklas and have some good feelings toward her. It's a nod to hippie and stoner culture, of course, not a character in the film. Toklas was part of the American expatriate literature scene in the early 20th century and is credited, somewhat jokingly, as the inventor of what's more commonly known as the pot brownie.

Who Alice B. Toklas Was, Really

Leigh Taylor-Young flashing finger signs as Peter Sellers smiles in a scene from the film 'I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!', 1968. (Photo by Warner Brothers-Seven Arts/Getty)

Alice B. Toklas was a forward-thinking woman, years ahead of her time. She was born in 1877 and died in 1967, at the age of 90 years old. Toklas' life-partner, with whom she lived in Paris for nearly 40 years, was the American writer Gertrude Stein. While Stein was a noted writer, whose most famous work was the pseudo-memoir The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas, she is perhaps best remembered as a mentor to Ernest Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and other expatriate writers, whom she dubbed the "Lost Generation."

Homosexuality has come to be widely accepted in many cultures today, but in Toklas’ day, it was not. She would be pleased to know that an organization founded in 1971 in San Francisco, CA was named after her; Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club.

Alice B. Toklas' Cook Book

One of the works Toklas was well-known for was, The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, which was first published in 1954, several years before her death. The book was as much a personal memoir as it was a cookbook. One of her more famous recipes was a culinary experiment she created called, “Hashish Fudge,” which was actually marijuana brownies. The recipe called for spices, nuts, fruit and, yes, "canibus sativa" -- which today we spell cannabis.  She called it “the food of paradise” and noted that the fudge can “liven up any gathering.” She also cautioned that two pieces were more than enough, and a person should be prepared for hysterical fits of laughter and wild thoughts.

What Alice B. Toklas Was Doing In A Peter Sellers Movie

Toklas' famous cookbook played a major role the 1968 movie I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, starring Peter Sellers. In the film, an attorney named Harold (Sellers) is been pressured by his secretary-fiancée Joyce (Joyce Van Patten) into setting a wedding date. Joyce is a bit of a bimbo, as we discover.

Brownies For Everyone

After having a car accident, Harold ends up driving a hippie-fied station wagon with a psychedelic paint job. He runs into his hippie brother, Herbie (David Arkin), at the funeral of the family’s butcher. Herbie’s girlfriend Nancy (Leigh Taylor-Young) is an authentic flower child and has her eye on Harold. She whips up a batch of Alice B. Toklas brownies for Harold but fails to inform him of the secret ingredient. Harold proceeds to share the treat with his bimbo fiancee and both of his parents. As the recipe promised, they all break out in a wave of silliness and hysterical laughter.

Harold Is Still Harold

After enjoying the effects of the marijuana brownies, Harold decides that the hippie lifestyle isn’t so bad. He gives up his strait-laced life, breaks off his engagement (leaving Joyce at the altar), and hooks up with his brother’s girlfriend. Before too long, Harold realizes that he isn’t any happier being a hippie than he had been as a respectable attorney. When he realizes that Nancy feels being monogamous isn't "hip," he decides to go back to Joyce and follow through with the wedding plan. Once he again, he changes his mind and leaves Joyce at the altar. He just can’t figure out what he wants.

Toklas Brownies And Toke-less Brownies

The movie was a hysterical romantic comedy. Other characters in the movie included a large Mexican family, all wearing neck braces after being involved in an automobile accident. There were also (fraternal) twin Cantors ready to perform at the wedding(s); also wearing neck braces -- after all, Harold was an attorney. The cast was incredibly funny and Sellers pulled off a stellar performance. 

Alice B. Toklas, who died the year before the movie was released, claimed that the famous recipe was given to her by Brion Gysin, an artist friend later associated with William S. Burroughs and the Beat writers. But she will always be known for introducing the world to the groovy brownies in her famous cookbook. As for the idea that Alice gave us the verb "toke" since Toklas brownies are actually "toke-less" way of consuming cannabis -- linguists say that's no more than a coincidence.

Whether your brownies are Toklas or toke-less or both, always remember the old gal's sage advice: don't eat more than a couple.

Tags: 1950 Literature | Alice B. Toklas | I Love You Alice B. Toklas | Peter Sellers | Stoners And Weed Culture | The 1950s

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.