What is it about warm crispy bread, the staff of life, the stuff of breakfast? The pleasure of my repast this morning –peanut butter on whole-grain toast– reminded me I’ve been wanting to write about vintage toasters. But first a little about toast, or ‘tost,” as it was called in Britain in the Middle Ages.
A stick, a fire, a slab of bread–that was the humble origin of toast. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, people got fancy, a sort of toast enlightenment, and toppings were added: eggs, ham, cinnamon, and that favorite of anglophiles everywhere — cheese. My father and I ate many pieces of toast with melted cheese in pubs in Ireland on our trip in the mid 1980s. It sopped up the excess Guinness! The French improved toast considerably with an egg-bath: Voila! French toast. (French toast, or pain perdu, originates in Medieval France, when egg and milk were used to revive stale or “lost” bread.)
Toasters were primitive at first. Note the cage-like toasting device below–that’s some smoky-flavored toast. (Click on image to enlarge.)
Thanks to Thomas Edison (and others), we can now make toast indoors. Toasting bread is a chemical process that involves a Maillard reaction — at about 310 degrees Farenheit, sugars and starches in bread react with amino acids and carmelize or “toast” the bread. (As you are crunching your toast, think of Louis Camille Maillard, who discovered the process in 1912. He joined the science faculty at the University of Nancy at the age of 16! Doesn’t that make you feel like an under-achiever? Toast his achievement by eating more toast.)
Here’s a c. 1915 advertisement for a toaster that was meant to sit right on your dining table. Thes toaster (bottom left), and the other electric appliances, will bring “lasting happiness,” said the power company on the way to the bank. (Click on image to enlarge.) Toasters were expensive back then. Today, this toaster would cost $118 (converting the buying power of a dollar from 1915 to 2010). Toast is worth it, I say!
Some toasters are works of art, like these (below) created during the Design Age in America. These toasters were for sale by Michael Sheafe, historian, repairman, and dealer of vintage and collectible toasters (www.toastercentral.com). I met him at a flea market in New York City. He generously shared his knowledge of toasters, and allowed my friend, Nancy, to take these great photos.
Look at the beautiful detail on this 1930s Westinghouse model (right).
Some people collect toasters, but at least one guy collects toast–The Toast Guy! (www.toastguy.com) He doesn’t collect any old ordinary toast, but toasts in which appear uncanny images of idols, religious icons or in his case, celebrities, too. This phenomenon is called paraeidolia (para is Greek for “alongside, beside, or instead” and eidolia comes from eidolon, which means “image, form, or shape.”) Instead of toast you have, say, Jesus in the form of bread (which, transubstantiation-wise, seems appropriate).
The online casino, GoldenPalace.com, paid $28,000 in 2004 on eBay for a toasted cheese sandwich bearing the image of the Virgin Mary. The toast had been owned for ten years by Diane Duyser of Florida, who claims that the sandwich had “never gone moldy” since she’d cooked it a decade before, even though she’d stored it in a plastic box.
If you are not so lucky to have a holy or otherwise recognizable image appear in (on?) your toast, have no fear, you can make your own.
My friend, Ellen, gave me this plastic mold. It’s the size of a slice of bread, and manufactured in China by some company or guy named “Fred.” I tried it once but it didn’t work well on whole-grain bread. For some things, like the visage of the Virgin Mary in your toast, I guess you just need Wonderbread.
Sources: www.foodtimeline.org (specifically the Oxford Companion to Food entry; www.toasters.org (The Toaster Museum Foundation); www.toastguy.com (The Toast Guy); The Smithsonian Institution; www.toastercentral.com (Michael Sheafe); BBC News; and of course, wikipedia.