One cannot sensibly discuss toast without mentioning Arthur Parker.
You may recall his brief but memorable appearance in Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon. We’ll get back to Arthur in a moment, but today’s post from Persephone Press (here) is the vehicle that moved me to think along these lines of toast and its literary connections.
Persephone featured a toasting fork that is from the Monk’s House collection; a homely little item that would likely have been used by Virginia or Leonard Woolf on a cold night toasting crumpets by the fire.
As an American, there is nothing that divulges my British roots as much as my love for toast. If for no other reason I would know that my ancestors were English.
Why? The British have long had a love affair with toast. They take it as seriously as the French take their escargot. They ponder it with poignancy, and even wax rhapsodic when they reminisce about it in their literature. Even the beloved crumpet is nothing else but Toast given a new persona of round, cute and plump.
Elizabeth David, in her classic English Bread and Yeast Cookery devotes an entire chapter to ‘Toast’, in an attempt to explain this curious English addiction.
‘Buttered toast’, she writes, ‘is…so peculiarly English a delicacy–and I use the term delicacy because that is what in our collective national memory it still is.’
In case you are looking for the best type of toast to absorb the maximum amount of butter, the enterprising English have had that base covered since at least as far back as the early seventeenth century. Look no further than Receipts in Modern Cookery; with a Medical Commentary, (1805), and a recipe for Potato Bread, given with this encouragement:
‘Lovers of toast will be much pleased with this kind of bread. The potato is not added here with a view to economy, but to increase the lightness of the bread, in which state it will imbibe the butter with more freedom’.
Oh my, yes.
Consider this excerpt from the beautiful novel How Green Was My Valley (by Richard Llewellyn), in which the author reminisces of his childhood in a Welsh mining town:
‘I had toasted four rounds of bread which my mother put on the end of the fork as piece after piece was browned….There is good dripping toast by the fire in the evening….good jelly dripping and crusty, home-baked bread, with the mealy savour of ripe wheat roundly in your mouth and under your teeth, roasted sweet and crisp and deep brown, and covered with little pockets where the dripping will hide and melt and shine in the light, deep down inside, ready to run when your teeth bit in.’
Flora Thompson, in her memoir Lark Rise to Candleford, writes about the homely comforts of toast as well:
‘In winter, salt butter would be sent for and toast would be made and eaten with celery. Toast was a favorite dish for family consumption. “I’ve made ‘em a stack o’ toast as high as up to their knees”, a mother would say on a winter Sunday afternoon before her hungry brood came in.’
On this side of the pond, we have Ambrose Bierce. In the chapter from his Collected Works entitled ‘La Boulangere’, (1911) he suggests, in satire, that the mothers of the new American Republic had no need of cannon balls or bayonets to wage their war against the British. They just made ‘treasonably bad bread’, and thus played a key role in driving off the redcoats. But this was now 1911, and Bierce’s plaintive cry against what he perceived as ‘American dyspepsia’ was that the granddaughters of the Revolutionary Dames might at long last put down their weapons.
Lewis Carroll, in order to make the curious bottle labeled ‘Drink Me’ more tempting to Alice, wrote that it tasted, among other things, of ‘hot buttered toast’. Naturally, the cautious Alice did wonder if the bottle contained poison, but after her first sip, Alice ‘very soon finished it off’.
A well toasted slice of bread does take a An Inordinately Long Time to achieve, which could be one reason Lewis Carroll had the March Hare slathering butter all over his pocket watch and dunking it in tea at that peculiar tea party we all love to analyze and deconstruct.
So look closely, and you’ll see our favorite English classics are full of toast racks, toasting forks, a miscellany of other toasting contraptions, as well as political upheaval with toast, domestic moments with toast, romantic moments with toast, and not a few lascivious toast references.
This is where Arthur Parker comes in.
As I can’t think of a tea party without conjuring up the familiar image of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, I cannot write of toast without thinking of Arthur Parker. That amazingly robust yet invalidish young man…
“My sisters think me Bilious but I doubt it”,
…is one of Jane Austen’s finest comic creations. And the scene where he is crooning over his toast and cocoa is one of the funniest she has written.
Arthur Parker was surely as passionate about his toast as Marianne and Willoughby were for each other, and he hoped to impress the charming young heroine Charlotte with his expertise in handling a toasting fork:
… “and turning completely to the Fire, sat coddling and cooking it to his own satisfaction and toasting some Slices of Bread, brought up ready prepared in the Toast rack–and till it was all done, she heard nothing of his voice but the murmuring of a few broken sentences of self-approbation and success.— When his toils were over however, he moved back his Chair into as gallant a line as ever.’
Alas, that love-and-toast making session in front of the fire is all the time we get to spend with Arthur, as Jane Austen died before she could finish this amusing novel.
The Austen heroine of Sanditon, Charlotte (who showed great promise to be as likeable as Lizzie of Pride and Prejudice) is certainly intrigued by Arthur’s ‘self-approbation and success’ with the toast endeavors, yet by no means as delighted with Arthur as Arthur is with himself:
“I hope you will eat some of this toast,” said he. “I reckon myself a very good toaster. I never burn my toasts, I never put them too near the fire at first. And yet, you see, there is not a corner but what is well browned. I hope you like dry toast.”
“With a reasonable quantity of butter spread over it, very much,” said Charlotte, “but not otherwise.
“No more do I,” said he, exceedingly pleased. “We think quite alike there.”
As does Jane, apparently. And perhaps Virginia Woolf, as well.
Notes: for more on Jane Austen and the 200 year celebration of her work featuring her novel Mansfield Park, join the discussion ‘An Invitation to Mansfield Park’ here at Sarah Emsley’s blog.
Also, for more on Sanditon, there are some delightful articles here and here and here. Enjoy!