Well, California’s done it again and led the world down the road to a new – if you can call it new - fad. If LA gave us the celebrity cupcake, it seems that San Francisco is now pressing us into a new appreciation of …. toast.
Which at one of San Francisco’s new toast eateries might be transformed into something “artisanal” for (wait for it, sit down now ….) upwards of about $4.50 a slice. A SLICE!
The thing is, I love toast. I’ve always loved toast. I have a history with toast that goes back a long way.
When I was a child my favorite part of toast was the crust. I liked my toast cold, with the butter and marmalade sort of mingled. My dad knew this, so he always toasted at least one more slice than he needed each morning, then spread on butter (well, Blue Band margarine actually – butter was expensive!) and marmalade. Then he’d cut off the crusts and only eat the middle. The crusts were left on his plate, which remained on the table after he’d left the house. That was my breakfast.
I loved his leftover crusts, with the salty taste of cold melted margarine and the sweetness of Chivers Dundee Marmalade, all washed down with a cup of tea, naturally. British children are weaned on tea.
By the time I’d hit the age of six, I was pretty much addicted to toast. It was an easy snack when I came home from school, and it tasted pretty good with anything. Cut into soldiers and dipped into boiled egg? Yum!
Spread thinly with Marmite – oh, my mouth waters! (and please, do spread thinly – my husband thinks Marmite is an evil British invention, but no wonder, the way he slathered it on his toast the first time. No, don’t do it – with Marmite, a little goes a long way.
But then there’s bread toasted on an open fire, outdoors – the mere thought has me sliding back a few decades. When I was a child my mother worked on the local farms. In a rural area, if a woman wanted a job that accommodated young children or children at home during school breaks, then farm work was pretty much the only choice. For us kids, each day on the farm presented numerous possibilities for new adventures. Only the smallest would remain close to their mothers while the women picked fruit or spread dung across the hop gardens, or cut back the old hop bines (yes, they're called bines with a "b") ready for burning – the rest of us would vanish until someone’s mum shouted that it was time to come back for lunch, or tea. On cold days the women usually built a fire to keep us all warm and to heat up food. My mother would snap off a couple of thin Y-shaped hazel branches and give one each to my brother and me – it was a makeshift toasting fork onto which she’d spike a cheese sandwich – those were the best. Then we’d stick our forks as close as we could get to the flames and voila! Toasted cheese sandwich with smoke undertones. My mouth waters just thinking about it.
And no photograph of a toasted cheese sandwich can replicate that particular experience.
I loved winter evenings when we had toast and cocoa before bed – though at home we used a more traditional toasting fork. I will be forever bathed by the comfort and coziness of the memory.
By the time I was about 16, I was working in a restaurant at weekends and bringing leftover baguettes to school on Monday mornings, where in the girls’ common room, I’d toast up a batch of crusty bread for us to enjoy. It was a boy’s school, you see, so there were only about ten or so of us girls in that first year of co-education. The common room was in a 16th century timber-framed building that was probably a fire risk, especially as “toasting” meant holding the bread up against the red-hot wire elements of an electric heater that had probably been brought into service around 1936. But dear me, how gorgeous it was, especially spread thick with butter and smooth Kentish honey.
I went on to college and life in the dorm, where each day several loaves of sliced white Wonder Bread were left in the kitchen for student use, along with a brick of margarine. And there was a toaster in the kitchen, naturally. I remember eating that strange almost plastic tasting toast late at night, sitting around with the other girls talking about everything from, well, guys, to books, to films and who was going where – and we were all jealous of Jan. Her dad worked for British Airways, so she was always going off somewhere really, really interesting that no one else could afford. I met up with her in London a few years ago, and one of the first things she said to me was, “You know, I’ve still got a bit of a thing about toasted Wonder Bread and margarine.”
And of course, there are bittersweet memories brought back by the thought of toast. About eighteen months ago, when my dad was in the hospice during the last three weeks of his life, all he wanted to eat in the evenings and for breakfast, was toast and marmalade, with (of course) a cup of tea or two. For about four days in his final week, my mother had a throat infection, and was not allowed to visit, so it was just me and dad. I took in some of my gluten-free bread so that we could have our tea together – me with my special toast and him with his more flavorful “real” toasted bread. But it was a lovely time, really. We never talked about the big things in life that you might imagine would enter the conversation, but instead we just watched TV, or discussed the news or the book on the Dam Busters he’d just read – and we would sip our tea and eat our toast, and just, I suppose, hold the love between us in a very personal, blessed way. After he died it was all I could do to look at toast for a long time. I’d cry over the bread and then just have a cup of tea.
The great thing about toast was always that it was a cheap snack, and it could become a meal in itself. I have toast for lunch most days, with perhaps a slice of smoked salmon on top, and maybe another slice with my home-made berry jam for desert. I have to eat gluten-free bread because a few years ago my gluten intolerance was finally diagnosed – I always wondered why I’d had those stomach cramps for most of my life. Given my bread addiction, is it surprising?
But would I pay $4.50 for a slice of artisanal toast at some chic place in San Francisco? No, I don’t think so. You see, to me, toast is the people’s food. It’s not meant to be upscale and gourmet. I don’t think it’s meant to be gussied up too much (apart from that thin slice of smoked salmon). It’s something you make at home, or outdoors over an open fire. Yet the urban trendsetters are flocking to buy their posh toast. Well – let them eat cupcake.
And before I leave you to your tea and toast – for surely you will just have to cut a slice of bread and slip it into the toaster now – here’s a link to what is arguably one of the silliest music video’s of the 1970’s (I haven't yet figured out how to embed a video into the body of a post) – but Paul Young was always easy on the eyes in those days. Go on, click on the link. You'll enjoy it ...
Have a very good weekend.