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TOAST: IT’S COMPLICATED

The taste test. Inconclusive verdict. More testing needed.

The taste test. Inconclusive verdict. More testing needed.

Surely nothing could be easier than making toast. In these modern times, all you have to do is drop sliced bread into the toaster slots, push the lever down, and toast will pop right up when it’s done.

It was much trickier in my childhood. Our toasters were primitive appliances, with fold-down doors on either side. They demanded vigilance and patience, with disastrous consequences if we wandered away. These were the days before fire alarms, so burnt toast could be very burnt before the smell roused our attention.

My family also had a camping toaster, a simple wire mesh contraption held over a flame. I remember the toast it made was particularly delicious—very crisp on the outside and somehow fluffier and moister inside.

Either way, there was nothing difficult or complex about toast. Or so it seemed.

British food writer Elizabeth David found a surprising number of things to say on the subject in her 1977 English Bread and Yeast Cookery. Her discussion includes a curt dismissal of electric toasters as “machines with which I cannot be doing”, and a consideration of the types of bread that make the best toast (rye or wholemeal, thick rather than thin slices). But for buttered toast she recommends “a light white bread”. Salted butter or not? “I’ll settle for any butter that’s good of its kind,” she says.

And then I again came across toast—and a new aspect to consider—in The Gourmet. Muriel Barbery’s novel, first published in 2000, portrays an arrogant French food critic who, though dying, is completely unrepentant about the pain he has caused those around him. Instead he dreams of food—including toast he once ate in a San Francisco café:

The moment I bit into the slice of toast […] I was overcome with an inexpressible sense of well-being. Why is it that in France we obstinately refrain from buttering our bread until after it has been toasted? [Bread that is buttered before toasting] becomes a moist, warm substance, neither sponge nor bread but something in between, ready to tantalise one’s taste buds with its contemplative delicacy. (p. 89)

Buttering before toasting! It wouldn’t work in a modern vertical toaster, of course, but I did a kitchen experiment in the griller of my stove. (Disappointment: the buttered-first bread tasted much the same as the buttered afterwards, but it’s worth trying again.)

Before toasting.

Buttered and unbuttered. After toasting.

I confess to hurrumphing about publications like Emily Kydd’s Posh Toast or Raquel Pelzel’s Toast: The Cookbook. (Pezel too recommends buttering before toasting [p. 7].) On the face of it, there is a sheer attention-grabbing perversity about them.

But I am willing to conceed that there is much more to toast than I first thought. Here, then, are four more examples of writers who see toast as more than simply charred bread.

Nigel Slater modestly calls himself “a cook who writes”. But British newspaper The Guardian—for which he has been a columnist for over 20 years—refers to him as “Britain’s best-loved food writer”. He has appeared in six series on BBC television, and has garnered a slew of accolades for his writing.

His memoir Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger has, alone, won six awards.

So—given that he chose “toast” as the title for his book—this humble, everyday foodstuff must hold special meaning for him. And indeed the first section is called “Toast 1”:

My mother is scraping a piece of burned toast out of the kitchen window, a crease of annoyance across her forehead. This is not an occasional occurrence, a once-in-a-while hiccup in a busy mother’s day. My mother burns the toast as surely as the sun rises in the morning […] I am nine now and have never seen butter without black bits in it. (p. 1)

This is not a promising introduction to a memoir written by someone whose eventual career is all about food. Nor is it a promising first impression of his mother.

But Slater skillfully turns this impression around, in a mix of affection, humour, and sensual appreciation of the true delight of toast:

It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you. People’s failings, even major ones such as when they make you wear short trousers to school, fall into insignificance as your teeth break through the rough, toasted crust and sink into the doughy cushion of white bread underneath. Once the warm, salty butter has hit your tongue, you are smitten. Putty in their hands. (p. 1)

“Toast 2” comes much later in the book, after chapters titled after a variety of foods around which memories are built: “Christmas cake”, “Sherry trifle”, “Jam Tarts”, “Tinned ham”.

In the interim since “Toast 1”, young Nigel’s mother—the toast burner—has died. This new section opens with Nigel’s father approaching him ominously: “I want to talk to you about something […] I’ve asked your Auntie Joan to marry me and she’s said yes […] I think she’s just like Mummy, don’t you?”

Of course, Joan—who is not actually a relative—is nothing like Mummy. Joan can cook superbly, that’s true; but this whole section lists many ways that she falls short: she smokes, she swears, she has awful taste. The boy concludes, silently, “that there is no one on this earth less like Mummy.” The final piece of deeply felt but unspoken proof circles back to toast:

Most of all I want to tell him how she won’t let me make toast when I come in from school, how she says it is because I will make crumbs and she has spent all day “cleaning his bleeding kitchen”. (p. 185)

“Toast 3” is the book’s final section. Now a young adult, Slater arrives in London with a backpack and negligible financial resources—“just enough money for a couple of rounds of toast and a frothy coffee”—after which he lands a life-changing job in the Savoy Grill (p. 247).

Clearly, even the simplest foods can resonate with significance. Slater’s mother’s toast is an act of love; his stepmother’s lack of love is evident in her ban on toast. The young man’s demonstration of independence—that he will have toast when and where he choses—somehow opens a door to his new career.

Elizabeth David—in the piece quoted above—sees toast as reflecting British cultural identity, but also as connecting emotionally to broken promises:

It is surely the smell of toast that makes it so enticing, an enticement which the actuality rarely lives up to. In this it is like freshly roasted coffee, like sizzling bacon—all those early morning smells of an intensity and deliciousness which […] create hunger and appetite where none existed. Small wonder that the promise is never quite fulfilled. (pp. 138-139)

She notes, furthermore, that the “right, proper texture” of toast is “fleeting”. Perhaps that is part of the enjoyment of the experience—it is at its best for only a short time, like the moment in which perfectly ripe peaches give maximum pleasure. Or like the brief beauty of cherry blossom, seen by generations of Japanese viewers as a meditation on the impermanence of life.

Michael Procopio’s “On Toast” takes up the theme of life/death. This piece (from his blog FoodForTheThoughtless.com) begins prosaically enough by describing how the author makes toast. He doesn’t have a toaster, he says, and instead uses his oven’s broiler, which forces him to maintain a certain level of mindfulness.

But once the bread is toasted, he admits that he eats it “absentmindedly” and that he takes it “for granted”—as most of us do.

But Procopio has a friend, Doug, who is battling brain cancer. He tells Procopio that toast is “sometimes the only thing I have an appetite for”. Doug also points out that Gabrielle Giffords, Democratic politician from Arizona, wanted toast as her first food when she regained consciousness following an assassination attempt in 2011. Now Procopio begins to see toast differently:

It makes perfect sense that they should ask for such a thing. Toast is basic, comforting, and easily digestible—something which can be quickly made with ingredients readily at hand. It is bland, yet appealing to nearly everyone. (p. 299)

Procopio then reaslises that toasting stale bread symbolises a second chance at life, a different phase that can have “a deeper, richer texture and flavour” (p. 299).

John Gravois also covers themes of comfort and second chances in his 2014 article “A Toast Story”. Published with a tag line: “How did toast become the latest artisanal food craze? Ask a trivial question, get a profound, heartbreaking answer”, it tells the story of a food fad. (And now that I realize artisanal toast is a fad, I begin to understand why there are multiple toast cookbooks.)

Gravois traces the craze to the “impressively odd” Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club, in one of San Francisco’s “windiest, foggiest, farthest-flung areas”. Proprietor Giulietta Carreli tells Gravois that toast “represents comfort”, and that “No one can be mad at toast.”

What Gravois finds out about Carrelli—and how she addresses her significant life challenges—is all about tragedy and resilience and finding a way out of the toughest, bleakest situations. It’s a great story and so well written that I urge you to read it. (See the link below.)

Improbable as it sounds, Carrelli makes toast an integral part of the mechanisms she constructs to save herself. It becomes part of connecting people to each other. It becomes, yes, profound and heartbreaking.

Who would have thought it?

The taste test. Inconclusive verdict. More testing needed.

Try this:

What about you? How do you make your toast? What do you put on it? Do you eat toast only for breakfast, or at other times of the day? And what does toast mean to you?

Eat a piece of toast, slowly and attentively, and notice all the sensations as you chew. The texture of the toast changes as you bite then chew. What do you smell, what do you feel, what do you taste, what do you hear? 

Read about scientific research into what makes the perfect slice of toast (really!):

“The Perfect Piece of Toast: Scientists Test 2,000 Slices and Find 216 Seconds Is the Optimum Time”, Daily Mail, July 22 2011.

Greg Rienzi, 2013, “A Quest for the Perfect Piece of Toast”, Johns Hopkins Magazine, Spring.

The Mythbusters talk about whether it’s true that toast always lands buttered side down.

Read about artisanal toast:

Hannah Goldfield, 2014, “The Trend Is Toast”, The New Yorker, May 2.

Khushbu Shah, 2014, “Artisanal Toast Is Taking the Nation by Storm”, Eater, May 30.

Melia Robinson, 2015, “San Francisco Is Going Crazy for This Artisanal Toast, So I Forked Over $4 to Try It”, Business Insider Australia, June 15, http://www.businessinsider.com.au/we-tried-the-fancy-4-toast-san-francisco-is-going-crazy-for-2015-6?r=US&IR=T

Make some of this artisanal toast yourself:

Danielle Walsh, 2014, “How to Make Toast So Awesome You Can Charge $4 a Slice”, Bon Appétit, March 18.

34 Recipes for Toast, Crostini, Bruschetta, and Toppings”, Bon Appétit, December 14 2014.

But sometimes toast is not your friend. Read this and worry:

Robert Mendick, 2015, “Crunchy Toast Could Give You Cancer, Food Standards Agency Warns”, Sydney Morning Herald, November 16.

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Resources
d
Muriel Barbery, 2009 (first pub in French, 2000), The Gourmet (trans. Alison Anderson), London: Gallic.
d
 Elizabeth David, 1977, “Toast”, reprinted in Choice Cuts: A Selection of Food Writing from around the World and throughout History, ed Mark Kurlansky, New York: Jonathon Cape, pp. 138-142.
d
Jon Gravois, 2014, “A Toast Story”, Pacific Standard, January 14.
d
Michael Procopio, 2011, “On Toast”, in Best Food Writing 2011, ed Holly Hughes, Philadelphia: Lifelong Books, pp. 297-299.
d
Nigel Slater, 2013 (first pub. 2003), Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, London: Fourth Estate/HarperCollins.

 

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One response to “TOAST: IT’S COMPLICATED

  1. Great topic!

    Toast is fascinating from various perspectives, including the psychology of a Father-in-Law who never fails to burn his toast no matter what the type of toaster. He does prefer it not burnt. Seemingly, it always ends up charred. Bit like Nigel’s mother in your post

    In one of your previous topics (Mouthfeel), I felt challenged when I was eating a very rare piece of toast (rare as in not often rather than uncooked) to mouth-feel it rather than taste it. Much to my surprise, I experienced a special ‘crunch’ I had missed with just using toast to hold the peanut butter or promite. So enjoyable was the crunch that I started eating toast more regularly and focused on getting that special crunch in it. Not always easy. Toast, I discovered is a tricky fragile thing, at its best only a short time.

    So, I enjoyed your post on toast. Suddenly I feel like munching some chunky grain bread toasted in the oven like in your pictures. But the ‘crunch’ would have to be done right.

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