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Of Toast and Toasting

Like so many key moments throughout history, it all happened because of a pretty lady and some damned fool hitting on her.  Actually, there were two men, but one of them was a little more chivalrous about his intent.  The moment in question is the proclaimed origin of the term “to toast” – as in the thing you do to a bride and groom – and how it derived from the breakfast item of the same name.  Here’s how the story was recounted in the June 4, 1709 edition of The Tatler:

“But many of the wits of the last age will assert, that the word, in its present sense, was known among them in their youth, and had its rise from an accident at the town of Bath, in the reign of King Charles II.  It happened, that on a public day a celebrated beauty of those times was in the Cross Bath, and one of the crowd of her admirers took a glass of the water in which the fair one stood, and drank her health to the company.  There was in the place a gay fellow, half fuddled, who offered to jump in, and swore, though he liked not the liquor, he would have the toast.”

This cad, half fuddled though he may have been, possessed enough wit to be credited with the invention of a bit of civility that, in fact, predated him by more than a millennium.    No, to find the true origins of toasting, we’ll have to go back to the Romans.

There are two parts to the art of toasting that we must first examine separately before we can make sense of the whole.  The first is health-drinking – literally, drinking to another’s health – which came about as a reaction to the Greek practice of poisoning wine.  Since guests could never be sure if their host was planning to poison them or not, Roman hosts — who had picked up the poisoned goblet trick from the Greeks — put their company at ease by pouring wine from a communal jug and then being the first to drink.  To point out just how safe his wine was, the host would drink to the health of a god or an honored guest.  In many instances, as good as the host’s hospitality may have been, the wine left something to be desired.  To counter the qualities of overly acidic wine, the Romans created their own version of charcoal filtration – dropping burnt pieces of toast into their wine, which is the second important development in toasting.  The trick worked, and for the next 1,600 years, toast and alcohol were constant companions.

As British soil has never been very good for growing grapes for wine, the people of the Isles took to mead and ale as their drinks of choice, but they didn’t forsake the toast introduced to them by the Romans.  Take, for instance, the practice of wassailing.  Wassail, a derivative of the Gaelic phrase “Waes Hael”, literally means “Good Health”.  If we are to believe Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th century History of the Kings of Britain, the practice started something like this:   Vortigern, a 5th century British king (Vortigern, was his rank – “great leader” – not his name), was attending a banquet with the Saxons when the Saxon princess Rowena entered with a cup of wine and, raising the cup, offered the toast “Lavert King, was hail!”  Speaking no Saxon, Vortigern asked for a translation, and was offered (read it aloud, and it’ll make sense):

Hit is the wone (want)
In Saxe-londe,
That freond saith to his freond,
Wan he sal drink
“Leofue (dear) freond wassail,”
The other saith “drinc hail.”

Geoffrey goes on to tell us that from that day forward, it became the custom in Britain for one who drinks to another to say “Wacht heil!” and for the recipient to respond with “Drink heil!”  Over the centuries, this evolved into the Twelfth Night custom of going around with a wassail bowl, singing:

Wassail! Wassail! All over the town,
Our toast it is white, and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl is made of maplin-tree;
We be good fellows all – I drink to thee.

In the second line there, you’ll catch the reference to toast.  As mentioned, the Britons didn’t just think health-drinking alone was the best thing since sliced bread – they were pretty keen on the bread itself.  Throughout the Middle Ages and right up to the Age of the Sail (cumulatively, the 5th to mid-19th centuries), the British regularly took toast with their ale and wine.  In Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, the great Falstaff commands “Go fetch me a quart of sack; put a toast in’t.”  Both Sir Walter Scott and William Makepeace Thackeray describe characters starting the day with “a toast and a tankard.”  And Charles Dickens, a great chronicler of liquid refreshments, tells us in his Household Words, that in the bygone days of Queen Anne, a great drinker would have been known as a “knight of the toast”.

All of this, of course, begs the question:  outside of the Roman charcoal purification bit, why on earth would anyone put toast in their drink?  If your thoughts immediately go to images of soggy flotsam bobbing around in your Guinness, you’re not alone – mine did as well.  But the key to understanding – and accepting – the practice is to understand the toast itself.

First, let’s look at the word “toast”.  This isn’t a brief trip in the Dualit; it’s a fully dried-out slice, baked in the oven until brick-like.  Such toast still lingers today, with names like Melba or zwieback (which means “twice baked”).  While the toasting process is simple enough – low heat for an hour per side – selecting the right bread is key.  Here, we’ll turn back to our Medieval relatives and a loaf known as manchet.   Our good friend Conner at Historical Foods tells us that in Medieval and Tudor Britain, there were essentially two types of bread:  manchet, if you were wealthy, and maslin, if you were poor.  Of course, I’m over simplifying things here, but for the sake of our argument, this broad generalization will do.  While maslin, meaning “mixed”, was a combination of coarser flours and was considered “brown” bread, manchet, the “white” bread mentioned in the wassailing song, was made from the finest wheat flours, making it quite literally fit for a king.

Looking at the picture above, you see the key to manchet’s success as dunkable toast – it’s a very dense, but not heavy, bread.  If you’re at all interested in trying it, I’ll refer you directly to Historical Foods for the recipe and some sage advice from Conner.  While the bread is a snap to make, proper kneading is crucial – so don’t skip Conner’s video tutorial on this – and don’t think of the kneading time given as a limit.  When the bread is ready, it will knead without tearing and you’ll be able to feel the change in its structure.  Once you have your bread, it’s time to make the toast:

Toast for Dunking
Start with a fresh manchet loaf or other fine, sturdy bread
Cut into ½ inch slices
Bake on one side for 1 hour at 225° F
Turn the bread over and bake an additional hour
Prior to serving, dust the toast with nutmeg, ginger and/or cinnamon
Optional – butter the toast prior to adding the spices

If you end up with roofing shingles, you’ve done everything right.  How well does the toast work, once dunked?  As an experiment, I placed a slice in a bowl of water overnight.  Upon inspection the next morning, not only was the toast still intact, it could be fished out (with a gentle hand) in one piece.  Of course, plain toast in water isn’t very exciting, so we’ll heed the advice of our forefathers and sprinkle some spices on top of it prior to dunking.  It’s also worth noting that while the toast will float just fine, dunking and moving it about will significantly shorten its lifespan, so treat it as you would an Oreo.

Still, the question remains:  why dunk bread in your drink?  Well, if the drink needed filtering, as did Roman wine, or the bread hadn’t been toasted but was stale, a little dunk could quickly right many wrongs.  Should bread happen to be scarce, toasted bread will keep much longer than fresh.  Also, consider for a moment the traditions of biscotti and tapas.  While most of us have enjoyed dunking a biscotto (which also means “twice baked”) in a latte, the natural bedfellow of those hard little cookies is vin santo, a sweet Italian wine.  Just like the British, the Italians enjoy a good dunk, as do the Catalans and French with their Ratafia liqueurs and biscuits.  Tapas, meanwhile, is a very close cousin to the “toast and a tankard”.  While a single tapa (which means “cover” or “lid”) toast isn’t actually inserted into wine, it is historically served atop the glass.  As the Spanish proverb goes, “With bread and wine, you can walk your road,” and it would seem that many of Spain’s neighbors – both geographically and historically – would tend to agree.  Toast, biscuits, cookies, and crackers are like are made for dunking.  Even for us Americans, that above-mentioned Oreo isn’t such a stretch from plunking toast into ale.

Now, as for the chap in the beginning – the one after the bathing beauty – and the trend he kicked off.  While we’ve seen that toasting goes back much further than the reign of Charles II, the fuddled fool is generally credited with having been the first to associate women and toast.  The toast “he would have” was, of course, the lady.  For the next couple of hundred years, women became synonymous with toast.  “The toast of the town” was always a beautiful woman.  The act of toasting – health-drinking – became specifically directed towards women.  By the mid-1800s and Dickens’ day, however, the practices of toast in drinks and referring to women as toasts were fading.  The author, invoking a verse from Jonathan Swift (who wrote for The Tatler mentioned above), laments:

“Londoners are still eager for news; but no one would now ask for the name of the reigning toast at Almack’s or Saint James’s.  Lady Gertrude Chamley may be the admired beauty at court and opera – but nobody toasts her.  No Vanessa would now describe a Stella:

She’s fair and clean, and that’s the most
But why proclaim her for a toast?”

With fewer enemies to poison, less bad wine to soften, fresh bread readily available, and sexual politics having changed dramatically since the 17th century, we’ve all but lost our reasons for toast and toasting, and while I certainly support the means, I’m a bit sad about the ends.  For almost two thousand years, toast played an integral part in our drinking, and with the cocktail and punch renaissance upon us, it would be nice to see toast – and proper toasting – return as a legacy to our history, our culture, and our civility.

Here’s to your heath!

How to Toast:  Etiquette guru Amy Vanderbilt offers the following advice on toasting at a dinner party:

  • Traditionally, the host or hostess gives the first toast.
  • The first toast is ideally made after the main course is cleared.
  • Unless the affair is small and informal, stand up when toasting.
  • Rapping on a glass with a clean fork or spoon to get guests’ attention is acceptable.
  • Speak slowly and distinctly.
  • The toast should be made to the guest of honor.
  • Be brief and don’t try to embarrass anyone.
  • At the end of the toast, raise the glass toward the person being toasted and drink.
  • Before sitting, call on another to toast, if desired.  This person should be asked – and should agree – to toast well in advance of the event.

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