On Today's Menu: A Hymn to Toast
posted August 10, 2005

by John Carroll
San Francisco Chronicle

Some years ago, writer and model Annie Lamott lived on a houseboat at Issaqua Dock in Sausalito. It wasn’t really even a whole houseboat; it was sort of like an in-law apartment at one corner of a larger vessel.

There were few appliances in her personal space. She had been confronted with the cruel question of downsizing: Would you like to have a stove, or would you like to have a place to sit down? Annie got a chair and gave up gourmet cooking.

But she still wanted to entertain. She wanted humans of distinction and easy charm to come calling and chat informally and perhaps offer her grant money. As a kind of warm-up for her evening with Robert Redford and John Kenneth Galbraith, she invited a few of her less distinguished friends over for a Sunday morning event she called: A Festival of Toast.

It might have been a Tournament of Toast of a Carnival of Toast; my memory is vague. But whatever it was called, it was a celebration of toast and all it means to our society.

Annie had only a toaster. Toast was the only foodstuff she could prepare other than raw carrots. In the hands of a less adventurous hostess, that might have been a liability. But as Annie pressed on us morsel after morsel of crisp bread, rye or wheat or rolled oat or flecked with undigested bits of rosemary, a veritable Symphony of Toast, we realized we were in the presence of something special.

What a rare treat, we each thought, as we took turns using the chair.

That brunch-like gathering gave us a chance to contemplate, each in our own way, what toast had meant to us as citizens, as artists, as human beings. Today I am offering you a similar chance. I am offering you a hymn to toast.

Item: Bread is the staff of life. Item: Bread is a convenient and useful platform for all of nature’s edible bounty. Item: Bread is cheap and eaten by both rich and poor. Item: Bread is a good insulator, a bad conductor of electricity, and an unusual brooch or pendant.

But bread is cold. It comesout of the oven warm, but then it cools down, and very soon you have cold bread. In early times, that was enough. Henry II of England, for instance, would eat tons of cold bread and think: Not bad.

But clearly, more was needed, particularly on those cold mornings in northern Europe. There was gruel, of course, but man does not live by gruel alone. Soon, people were placing bread next to the fire. One day: Toast.

Civilization has never been the same.

Consider the wonder of toast. Perhaps you are eating toast right now. Certainly, if you’ve gotten this far, you’re thinking about hopping up and making yourself a piece or two right now. Go ahead. I’ll mark your place with these CAPITAL LETTERS.

Maybe you’re in a restaurant. Why not raise one finger in that attractive way you have and say, “Miss, I’d like some toast with that.”

With toast comes butter. No one would be so uncouth as to eat butter right off the stick, no matter how much he or she might want to. But with relly hot toast, you can melt maybe a quarter pound of butter into the bread and no one’s the wiser.

Also good on toast: jam, jelly, marmalade, Marmite, Vegemite, peanut butter, chocolate sauce, sugar, cinnamon, mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, chutney, fried eggs, bacon, margarine, ham, cheese, sausage and tomato. Bad on toast: French fries, baking soda, and water.

What’s really good is to get into a Toast Fugue State. Jam works best as a trigger. Put the toast on a flat surface. Put the jar of jam next to the toast. Think about the fruit from which the jam is made while staring at the jam. Very slowly, take a knife and dip it into the jam. Hold the knife above the jar and let the jam drip back in. Put the palm of your other hand very lightly on top of the piece of toast. Feel the warmth. Watch the jam. Whoops, it’s tomorrow!