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Why I Toast
published in Jan. 2005, dgrayson
The "groom’s cake" is a Southern wedding tradition that has recently become popular outside the South. The groom's cake was originally intended for the unmarried girls of the wedding. During the wedding night, they would place a piece under their pillow in the hope that they would dream of the man they were to marry. Today, its purpose is less fanciful: it's simply intended to highlight the interests or hobbies of the groom. Not surprisingly, groom's cakes come in all shapes and sizes -- and themes. Fishing and hunting motifs are popular, as is football.
My wife is from south Louisiana, and we looked forward to incorporating the groom's cake as one of several Cajun and Southern traditions in our wedding in San Francisco. The pastry chef whom we hired was a student at the California Culinary Academy, one of the most prestigious cooking academies in the country. When he brought the finished product to his class, the reaction was such that the President of the school was called to witness the specimen first-hand.
Yes, my groom's cake was a toaster.
I have been teased -- even maligned -- for my lifelong infatuation with toast. Strangely, neither sympathetic observers nor critical ones -- nor even I -- have delved into the reasons for this obsession. After some thought, I've come to understand that there are many dense layers underlying my passion for toast.
My earliest memories of eating toast were at the breakfast table. As early as the first grade, my father would fix "tea, toast and honey" for me every morning. The tea was prepared the English way -- with milk and sugar. The bread was Roman Meal, and I enjoyed four half-slices while reading through the morning paper. Thus, while other kids were eating Pop-Tarts or Apple Jacks, I was already loyal to toast.
That loyalty remained steadfast throughout childhood. Toast proved to be the perfect afternoon snack, an après dîner treat. To the consternation of my parents, I also began asking for toast to complement dinner. Altogether, I was often eating toast up to four times a day!
This might seem fantastical to those outside the "religion." After all, toast doesn't have the sweet taste of ice cream, chocolate, or other common "sweet tooth" addictions. Nor does it possess the flavor of savory foods. In fact, without the help of butter or another spread, toast is down-right boring and bland.
However, it is precisely these qualities -- that it is bland, but also that it combines well with other foods -- that made it so important to me and allowed it serve multiple, complex needs. A primary need with which toast helped me cope was my legendary unadventurous taste buds. It did so in two ways. First -- and more obvious -- toast (and bread generally) was a safety net when I was confronted with foods too unfamiliar and exotic for my taste. If my squeamishness got the better of me, I knew I could always fill-up on a few slices of toast later.
Less obviously, toast also proved to be a means of becoming more adventurous. For example, like many kids I loved spaghetti, but did not eat it with tomato sauce; instead, I used butter. As a teenager, I graduated from butter to marinara sauce, and toast was my bridge. Instead of eating spaghetti the usual way, I would pile the spaghetti with sauce on the toast in a kind of spaghetti sandwich (yes, a messy proposition). The familiar element of toast allowed me to try and enjoy the richer sauce. This pattern -- combining the familiarity of toast with the exoticism of a new food -- helped me experiment with different foods and cuisines, and become a more adventurous eater.
Beyond these psychological functions, toast of course held other, more primal pleasures. The rough, warm texture of its surface was a key tactile pleasure. I grew to appreciate the familiar smell, slightly burnt and faintly electric.
The making of toast also grew into a cherished ritual. Adjusting the toaster settings to brown the toast just right, and timing the toasting to match the preparation of the entrée, were components of this ritual.
Convenience is the final key to understanding my long-lasting commitment to toast, especially during my bachelor years. Like many pre-metrosexual single men, I had little experience cooking. The three-minute journey from the bread bag to the toaster to the plate cemented toast's central place. Additionally, toast's portability was an advantage: I could bring it to the couch and TV, or take it on the bus on the morning commute.
Interestingly, the other foods that I relied upon during these years could, in some ways, be seen as similar to toast: pizza, sandwiches, and even burritos. These foods share a common element of bread (or similar substance, like a tortilla) holding together disparate ingredients. They are also convenient and portable.
Now married to a wife who's a great cook, toast is mainly confined to the breakfast table -- where it is still a daily comfort food. My passion remains unabated and is still recognized by friends and family. For instance, my mother recently gave me toast tongs as a gift -- used for extracting small slices from the toaster. (No toast aficionado should be without this important tool.) Yes, toast remains a mainstay of my diet and is one of life's simple pleasures that I cannot do without.
David Grayson is an Oakland-based essayist and poet whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Modern Haiku, Cortland Review, Caveat Lector, moocat.net and several other journals.Got feedback on this page? Share it with the moocat!
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