The Road to Paradise is Paved with Grains

The ice cream experiments were continuing when I encountered a startlingly relevant passage in The Book of Salt. The novel, by Monique Truong, is told from the perspective of a Vietnamese cook hired by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas for their Parisian household in the late 1920s. Evidently, it takes off from a real-life anecdote in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Miss Toklas wrote, “[He] came to us through an advertisement that I had in desperation put in the newspaper. It began captivatingly for those days: ‘Two American ladies wish to hire a cook. . . ’ ”

The novel intersperse the cook’s personal story with bits of kitchen wisdom he has picked up in his journey, including a description of “mes mesdames” tasting his best Singaporean ice cream:

They both could taste the vanilla and the crystallized ginger, but only Miss Toklas could detect that there was something deeper, something that emerged as a lingering lace of a feeling on the tongue.

Peppercorns, Miss Toklas. Step the milk from morning till night with ten coarsely crushed peppercorns. Strain and proceed as usual. The “bite” that the peppercorns leave behind will make the eater take notice, examine this dish of sweet anew. Think of it as an unexpected hint of irony in a familiar lover’s voice.

Here it was. Just the solution for how to use the grains of paradise that had come into my possession, and for the ice cream I’d been pondering. A friend had passed along some of the spice, having purchased it for the interesting description alone, but saying, “I’m not sure what I’d do with it.”

I’d heard of grains of paradise, a spice native to West Africa, being used in beer brewing, and I seemed to recall a flurry of activity a while back, when it was discovered by chefs. Grains of paradise are described as having a peppercorn-like bite, but with a bit of citrus that some have likened to a burst of lemon in the mouth. Online recipes seemed to use them much like peppercorns — as a crust for fish, in salads or salad dressings — and the little dried berries do look similar. But I’d also found a Grains of Paradise Ice Cream, with a base of coconut milk. Aha! Still, while it was on the right track, it was not headed in quite in the right direction. Then, almost simultaneously, I came across The Book of Salt passage.

Sweet serendipity! Taking the fictional cook’s suggestion, I steeped a tablespoon of cracked grains of paradise in a standard vanilla ice cream base for about 8 hours, then strained the mixture, and churned in the ice cream maker as usual. The result is indeed evocative of the cook’s description. The effect is subtle, probably undetectable to most tasters, but the grains of paradise do provide an underlying depth of character, very much a “lingering lace of a feeling on the tongue.”

To gild the lily, the ice cream was paired with another recipe incorporating grains of paradise, Drunken Cherries. (How could I resist using the bounty of my favorite summer fruit?)

I’d long known that The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is a sought-after collectible (with its own infamous “food of paradise” recipe), which drew my attention to The Book of Salt in the first place. But I have no idea where the novelist gathered the cooking tidbits passed along by her protagonist. Perhaps if Monique Truong still lives in Brooklyn, as the book jacket says, I’ll have the chance to ask her in person someday, and offer a jar of Drunken Cherries in thanks.

Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein in Paris, 1922 (Man Ray photo/National Portrait Gallery