Opinion: A brief history of toast


Commentary by Ward Degler

When my breakfast toast popped up the other morning, one piece got stuck and I had to unplug the toaster and pry it loose with a fork. It dawned on me that used to happen a lot years ago with older toasters.

Then, of course, I started wondering about the whole history of toasters and toast. Interesting stuff.

The word toast comes from the Latin, “torrere,” which means, to burn. Toasting bread releases something called the Maillard reaction, which also means “to burn.”

The first reference to toast appeared in a 1430 recipe for something called Oyle Soppys, essentially flavored onions stewed in stale beer and oil.

Fast forward a couple hundred years and we find Shakespeare quoting Falstaff in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” calling for a quart of sack, “and put some toast in it.”

I admit, I haven’t a clue what any of this means. I can guess what sack might be, but why would someone put toast in it? Maybe folks dipped toast in beer back then, coffee-and-doughnut-style.

Originally, toast was what folks made with stale bread. My earliest memory of toast was as a kid with tummy flu when Mom gave me tea and toast.

Burned is a good word to describe our toast back then. Our first toaster was a stand-up heating element with a fold-down door on each side. You put the bread in, raised the door and timed it for one minute. Then you dropped the door, turned the bread over and toasted the other side.

The problem was, we could never keep track of the time, and the toast was always burned. Of course, Mom just scraped the black stuff off, slathered it with butter, and we ate it. I never knew toast wasn’t supposed to taste like charcoal until years later.

A new type of toaster showed up in the 1930s, a General Electric product called the Toastmaster. It was the very first pop-up toaster. I remember Mom and Dad joyfully making slice after slice of toast just to watch it work.

As a side note, my sister has that toaster, and it still works. My wife and I, on the other hand, have had a succession of toasters through the years that worked for a while and then gave up.

Everything we like will eventually be bad for us, of course, and toast is no different. Dark toast contains something called acrylamide, which can cause cancer.

Looking back, however, having survived a childhood of burnt toast without serious illness, I probably don’t have anything to worry about.


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