On Toast

Some mornings, when I am awakened by the sound of my alarm clock or my grumbling stomach, I do what millions of others do–  I crawl out of bed, head for the kitchen, and make toast.

I was going to say that I make it  without thinking, but that would be untrue, since I do not own any appliance specifically designed to do the thinking for me in terms of heating and browning bread. I do without these appliances because they are a luxury I cannot afford in terms of counter space.

So I make my toast in the oven. There is a certain amount of thought that must go into the process, but nothing so mentally taxing it would send me back to bed.

I crank my oven up to broil and place two pieces of bread on the middle rack to let them dry out a bit as I wait for my tea kettle to boil. Just before the kettle has a chance to express itself audibly, I remove the bread slices from the oven and place them under the broiler to brown. It is a fairly straightforward process on most days. Unless I am either too tired or too distracted to be properly watchful, in which case not even dental records could prove that the charred remains at the bottom of my broiler ever bore the name bread.

If my toasting mission has been a successful one, I will pour my tea and slather my freshly-carbonized breakfast with whatever is most handy. I eat it absentmindedly as I sit with my tea and read the news.

If ever a thought of mine was given to toast beyond its making, it has been merely to wonder what should be placed upon it: butter, cheese, peanut butter, bacon, tomatoes. I have always regarded my toast as a platform upon which to place other, more interesting things.

And, though I sometimes take my toast with jam, I almost always take it for granted. That is, until a friend of mine caused me to look at the stuff in a different light.

“You know, I think you should write about toast,” he said. His choice of venue was fitting, since these words were uttered near the bread station of our restaurant, which is conveniently located in front of a giant heat source– a large fireplace that was currently blazing and sending its heat out toward the stacks of fresh loaves. Before I could wonder aloud if toast could ever be made interesting, he added:

“It was the first food Gabrielle Giffords asked for and it’s sometimes the only thing I have an appetite for myself.” Since this statement came from a man who has been battling brain cancer with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy for the past seven months, I took notice.

And now, for the first time in my life, I am giving proper thought to toast.

I’ve never had to fight off death, but I have often wondered if I would have the emotional and spiritual strength to beat back the brutal savaging done to me by a bullet or a mass of cancer cells or any other life-threatening agent. I know that I am fortunate enough to have the all support necessary should I need it– a good doctor, my family, my friends– but none of these externals would be of any real avail unless I had within me the powerful and indomitable urge to live. Battling death is not for the weak-willed.

I’m sure I have it within me, but it has never needed to come out and show itself, like it has for Giffords and my friend Doug. Both of them have stared death in the face. Both of them have made a slow-but-steady crawl back to life, though their bodies and appetites have been weakened. And both of them have expressed their recovering hunger by asking for toast.

It makes perfect sense that they should ask for such a thing. Toast is basic, comforting, and easily digestible– something which can be quickly made with ingredients readily at hand. It is bland, yet appealing to nearly everyone.  To those of us struggling to regain our health, toast presents itself to us as a sort of gustatory life raft we can hold onto until there is enough strength to pull ourselves out of the deep.

In another sense, the asking for toast is a symbolic act, however unintentional. Freshly-baked bread has a relatively short shelf life– it hardens and stales and is generally rendered unfit for eating unless it is ground up into crumbs and re-purposed or thrown to hungry birds. Yet if that same bread is sliced up and heated, it is given a new lease on life, but with a deeper, richer texture and flavor than it had before it was held to the fire.

Before it became toast.

I went for a walk with Doug shortly after his brain surgery. As we strolled around the park, he told me that having a brain tumor was–oddly– one of the best things that ever happened to him because it caused him to concentrate on what was most important to him– spending time with his family.  He added that every day he is given on this earth is a gift not to be wasted.

It was a hard-earned lesson I knew I would do very well to heed. Thinking about toast, of all things, has reminded me of that.

So thank you for that reminder, Doug. You’ve been sliced up, held to the fire and come back to life. Every time I put bread in the oven in the morning, I will think of you and do my best not to squander the new day I’ve been given.

And I will certainly never take my toast for granted again.

Or you, for that matter.

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About Michael Procopio

I write about food and am very fond of Edward Gorey. And gin.
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73 Responses to On Toast

  1. It’s not often (or ever) that I read a food blog and am completely moved by the writing. So, thank you for that.

  2. saltyseattle says:

    It’s a bitter irony of life that sometimes it takes something so potentially catastrophic to jolt us back to awareness of the present. The little things can do it to, though, like for example reading your ever-thoughtful words.

  3. Mary Helen says:

    It’s funny how those comforts that are so mild and forgettable become the things that you lean on when life has you all tangled up. Toast, warm showers, sun light…

    • Funny, but I was just about to seek the mild comfort of a warm shower just now. Thank you for stopping by, reading, and taking the time out to comment– that’s a big reward for me.

  4. Michael Dwyer says:

    Posts like this keep me coming back for more.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences so beautifuly.

  5. julie says:

    You are brilliant. Thank you for considering things so beautifully and sharing it with us.

  6. “And, though I sometimes take my toast with jam, I almost always take it for granted.”
    Lovely!

  7. Lindy says:

    What a wonderful note! (It reminded me of my Grandmother and how she made toast, wonderful memories) I will say it again, YOU have a gift with the written word and I thank you for that!

  8. Genie says:

    This is the first time a story about toast has made me cry. SO moved, Michael. Thanks for writing this.

  9. Sylvia says:

    As someone who eats toast for breakfast most mornings and also battled a thankfully benign brain tumor, this was lovely – as always. Having a serious illness is often a gift. As you put it so eloquently, “one of the best things that ever happened to him because it caused him to concentrate on what was most important to him– spending time with his family.” It’s something you hear, but to know it is something precious.

    • Sylvia,

      I never knew you were put through that terror, but thankful it was benign. You’re right– to hear something is one thing, but to know it really is precious. I’m glad you commented. Thank you.

  10. Kristi Sippola says:

    This absolutely made me miss you, Dougie, and the fireplace filled with meat. Love you boys!

  11. Laurie says:

    Michael,
    How lovely to stumble upon your beautiful and touching words today. Very well done. At a time during my childhood we used the stove as both a toaster and a hair dryer (not at the same time ;-), and I was embarrassed that we couldn’t afford either appliance, but now I see if for the gift that it was. Thank you.

  12. Tracy says:

    there are foods you’re given as a child that come to define comfort for you. toast was one of those foods. with my grandmother, it was cheese toast and almost jelly like farm tomatoes. with my mother it was cinnamon toast made with a paste of too much butter, too much sugar and just enough cinnamon to hold the crunch in place.
    what a wonderful and universal truth about something so seemingly simple

    • Thank you, Tracy.

      It’s so true about toast, isn’t it? I used to sometimes separate my toast to make it extra thin and then hold circles of it on my tongue to dissolve like a Holy Communion wafer.

      The things we do to find comfort…

  13. Lana says:

    Simplicity is so many times taken for granted. Life, at its basic biological form, is simplicity itself, and we tend to waste days, without thinking. Sometimes all it takes is a Doug saying something so obvious, so simple, and so profound to make us find the beauty and exaltation in basic things of our everyday life.
    I prefer bread to toast. But I have conquered my European demons and recognized that toasting indeed gives my bread a second life.
    Thanks for another beautifully written post. I don’t doubt that the students will like you!

    • Apparently, the students have already looked at my blog in class, so they’ve been prepared. I’d like to think it will be a fun exercise.

      Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful comment (and support!).

      I hope those blasted European demons remain conquered.

      Michael

  14. Bee says:

    Was directed to your blog today, and I’m glad I was. Beautiful writing and message. Can’t wait to read more :)

    • I’m very glad you stopped by and took the time to comment, Bee. Thank you.

      I always wonder how people wind up visiting my blog. How did you wind up here? You certainly don’t have to answer, but I’d be interested to know so that I may thank the director.

      Michael

  15. Katrina says:

    Your writing is, as always, absolutely beautiful, but I also wanted to add that I adored the photos that you chose to accompany it!

  16. Thea says:

    Gorgeous toast photo. I made marmalade this weekend, blood orange and sweet lemon, and it is the bomb. Now I must consider the toast. Attention has been drawn.

    One of the reasons I am most grateful to David Lebovitz is that he through his posts directed me to your blog. Your writing has enriched my life. Thank you.

    • Hello Thea.

      I’m glad you found your way here, too. It’s readers like you who take the time to share their thoughts who help power my writing, so thank you.

      Now who on earth is David Lebovitz?

  17. Susan says:

    Hi Michael
    Great post! Thoughtful and thought inducing as always.

    I often try to prepare myself for life’s misfortunes
    - disaster, disease, dementia, but it’s always too little
    too late so we might as well just enjoy the simple things
    like toast!
    And if you are ever in L.A. try the shrimp toast at Chin Chins!
    Susan

    • Susan,

      I wonder if toast can truly help one prepare for the onset of dementia. I’ll give it a try and let you know in about 40 years if it works.

      However, I might need a steady supply of Scottish honey to keep me going. Thanks to you, I know just where to find it.

      Shrimp toast? Indeed.

      Michael

  18. Emilie says:

    Thank you for writing this! I LOVE toast and eat it everyday. Some days it really truly is the only thing that gets me out of bed. I, too, view toast as a “platform” for other things. One of my very most favorite creations: topping lightly buttered toast with sliced roasted romas, asiago cheese and a poached egg.

    You always so artfully and beautifully weave connections between food and the human spirit. This post made my day!

  19. Serene says:

    Lovely. I’m with Doug: my near-death experience was a net positive in my life, even though it was horrible; and the first thing I wanted was toast. However, I was still in the hospital, and it was afternoon, so mom gave me crackers out of the vending machine instead. It was fine, but not what I wanted. I was happy to get home, where people fetched me exactly what I wanted for a while.

    • Serene,

      I was unaware that you had a near-death experience. Have you written about this and I somehow missed it?

      You are correct about them being net-positive in the long run. I don’t think anyone can go through something death-defying and remain unchanged.

      Crackers?

      I’m glad you’re still around, lady.

      xom

  20. Neil says:

    Michael, This is the latest addition to what I guess is now a growing literature of toast. You absolutely MUST read Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt, which is about how the dailiness of making toast for his motherless grandchildren brought him back to life after the death of his daughter. It’s a wonderful book, and this is a nifty little piece. Thanks!

  21. Doug says:

    You touched my heart, bro. Thank you for “toasting” me. Nancy loved it too.

    • Douglas,

      You’re one of my heroes, man.

      How can I not love the guy who inspired not only a piece on toast, but also a rant about cupcakes?

      It would seem that you are also my muse. You give me great ideas.

      Michael

    • Megan says:

      This was beautiful, Michael. Definitely made me well up, and made me miss all of you around that fireplace — particularly yourself and Douggles.

      Promise to stop in soon for a much-overdue visit.

      xo

  22. Maravilla says:

    “To those of us struggling to regain our health, toast presents itself to us as a sort of gustatory life raft we can hold onto until there is enough strength to pull ourselves out of the deep.” Toast was the comfort of many childhood sick days. On days we were too sick to leave the bed, my mother would serve us plain toast with a silky oatmeal drink laced with canela and piloncillo. She would tear the toast into pieces and float them in the oatmeal. Gustatory life rafts indeed!

    • Maravilla,

      I am loving that people liked that bit about the life raft. Seriously. Thank you so much for coming by and commenting.

      Now I need you to drop whatever you’re doing and tell me more about this oatmeal drink. Do you have a recipe you can share with me? I am absolutely fascinated. Really and truly.

      Michael

  23. ursula says:

    Oh goodness. What a toast. I literally am welling up with tears. Literally. You always write so beautifully.

  24. You made me think about my own breakfast ritual and how often I take toast for granted though each day I have it for breakfast it is a recollection of memories. For me it’s always cinnamon toast; a tradition started by my mother and one my kids grew up with and embrace as well. And you are right…if nothing else seems palatable, we can always manage toast; it is nature (the needing to eat) or nurture (the memories of our mother’s caring for us in the same way) that makes it so appealing I wonder?

    Very nicely told story. I may not be able to profess my undying love for your writing since this is my virgin visit to your blog…but I can profess I’ll be back.

    • Thank you, Barbara. Since this was your virgin visit, I hope I was gentle enough with you.

      And thank you so much for taking the time out to comment. I look forward to hearing from you again!

      Michael

  25. penandra says:

    Michael:
    Thank you for this absolutely delightful post (as others have shared, I too, needed a hankie!) Reading through the comments has been almost as good as the original post (I now have four or five more blogs (and one book) to explore just from the comments on toast!) As commenters shared their favorites, I thought of my Dad — for a special treat on Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings with everything that was going on in the kitchen, Dad would make us toast with peanut butter and brown sugar. Still a comfort food for me when I need a time out!

    I always enjoy seeing a new post from you (I originally found you through Confections of a Foodie Bride). I’m grateful you share your gift of writing through your blog.

    • Penandra,

      I’m a bit fan of my comment section, naturally. One of the most re-assuring things to me about writing this blog is the fact that people don’t come to here and leave comments like “OMG YUM”. Instead, they tend to leave thoughtful messages.

      My readers are a smart group of people and that delights me to no end.

      I thank you for adding a bit of yourself.

      Michael

  26. Janis says:

    What a thoughtful post. I am so glad I found my way here. What a great reminder not to take the obvious for granted.

    • Thanks, Janis. I’m glad you found your way, too.

      Not taking the obvious– or at least the simple– things in life for granted is something of which I need constant reminding. I doubt I am alone on that.

      Michael

  27. SMITH BITES says:

    you always, always make me pause Michael . . . and that is a good thing because it snaps me into the present – to capture the moment, to help me be aware of my surroundings. whether it’s to laugh with you, share tears or to look at something as simple as toast in a completely new way, it is good. i will never eat another piece of toast again without thinking about your friends and offering up a prayer of gratitude for each of you.

  28. penandra says:

    I don’t usually re-post, but I have to show you a site that I found linked from another (Sweetapolita) blog — for sprinkles from the Netherlands . . . why am I posting here? They put their sprinkles on toast! see it here
    http://www.deruijter.nl/producten/chocoladehagel-puur.aspx

  29. Once again you have written a post that I will bookmark and return to often to use as a ‘tuning fork’ when I need reminding of what food writing can be. Thank you Michael.

  30. Alisa says:

    You never fail to move me, this is really a wonderful post.

  31. Fran says:

    What a wonderful story told in words and photos and how ironic that I’m reading this on the first night of Passover. Your words always succeed in making me think and to look inward … and for that, I’m thankful for your stories.

    • Thank you, Fran. I never realized my own inward looks would cause others to do the same. I’m glad you let me know that. And I’m sorry you have to wait a few days to eat proper toast. However, a heaping helping of matzo brei would certainly keep me happy for a while.

  32. Brooke says:

    Stopping back to see what I had missed, I find this beautiful post. You are lovely, talented, and supremely able to find the great stories in food. What a lovely meditation on toast.

    I hope I get to spend a quiet morning making toast with you.
    Your friend, Brooke

  33. Becky D says:

    What a lovely post. You are such a wonderful writer. I always enjoy your blog so much. Thank you.

  34. Deborah says:

    Michael,
    I don’t think you buried the lede at all! Beautifully written and all the more moving since I know the protagonists. You are a fine storyteller.

  35. Pingback: Food for Thought |

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