One of my favourite childhood memories is of waking up at my grandparents’ house when we stayed in school holidays.
Tucked under our flannelette sheets up the cold end of the house, we could hear the door to the kitchen open (it had a distinctive creak). From that door came the signals of early morning: the radio on the local station, the door of the wood stove grating as it was opened and closed, Grandma moving around. Light, warmth.
And the smell of toast.
Like my parents, my grandparents were dairy farmers. Before Grandpa and my uncles went out to milk, Grandma would make them tea and toast, which was eaten sitting round the wood stove.
She cooked the toast at the fire compartment of the stove, holding the bread right up to the flames with a dinner fork. (Grandma had asbestos hands. The washing-up water she used would take your skin off.) She owned an electric toaster, and used it at breakfast later in the morning, but the early morning toast was always made on the fire. Grandma would spread the cooked toast with butter and then lay it in an enamel dish in the oven to keep warm.
That toast was the best tasting food in the world. Warm smokiness, infused with salty melted butter, all mingled with the pleasure of the child who had managed to wake up in time to be included in this adult workday rite.
Food memories are often as much about the ritual and feelings evoked as the food itself.
The simplest of foods, toast barely scrapes (sorry) into the definition of ‘cooking’. But it holds a special comfort-food status for many, even in an age where wheat and carbs don’t work for everyone.
The nature of toast really doesn’t change, except maybe for the cooking utensil. In 1911, Australians are already starting to read about toasting machines among the wonders that could be used in the new ‘electrified’ homes. By 1915, electric toasters are being advertised.
And yet even now it’s still better when cooked over a fire.
Toast is the food of beginnings. Of breakfast at the start of the day. The first food we’re trusted to prepare on our own as children. It’s what we want to eat when we’re feeling sick, or too tired to cook. It’s why Australians lug tubes of Vegemite overseas.
And so, a toast. To toast.