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Re: A little bit of toast

Posted by Lewis on August 29, 2003

In Reply to: Re: A little bit of toast posted by James Briggs on August 28, 2003

: : : : Somewhere further down the list, someone asked about the toast "Here's mud in your eye", which made me wonder why the word 'toast' is used in reference to raising our glasses, etc.

: : : : Why 'toast'?

: : : From the Word Detective:

: : : "Dear Word Detective: I read somewhere that a "toast" or "to toast" comes from the Anglo-Saxon tradition of wassailing. Actual toast was thrown into the wassail bowl, and whoever got the toast in their drink would have good fortune the next year. From that beginning came the tradition to "toast" or "make a toast" to a group or some honored person. I am looking for proof that this is correct. -- Blanche Williams, via the internet.

: : : Well, the best I can give you is proof that you are not far off. By the way, I see you have the same problem that I do. I am forever reading interesting things, mulling them over for a few moments, and then promptly forgetting where I read them. I live with the gnawing suspicion that if I could ever remember all the interesting little tidbits I've read over the years I'd have a far clearer idea of what's going on around here.

: : : Although we usually associate the word "wassail" with the old English Christmas tradition of drinking spirits from the "wassail bowl," the ritual of "wassail" was actually a Danish import to England. "Ves heil" in Old Norse meant "be healthy," and was routinely offered as a salutation to one's drinking buddies, who would then reply "drinc hail," which meant "drink to good luck."

: : : Now, as weird as it may sound to us, people back in 12th century England really did like to dip or dunk toast, often spiced, into their wine or ale to improve the flavor, rather as we add croutons to a salad today. Go figure. In any case, the tradition continued for hundreds of years.

: : : At some point, it became common to offer salutations to an honored figure at a banquet, for instance, by noting in one's tribute that the mere presence of the illustrious person made the wine or ale taste better, better even than the best toast in one's drink could have made it taste. This bit of cornball flattery apparently became so common that, by about 1700, any sort of drinking salutation eventually came to be known as a "toast."

: : Tres interesant!

: : The tradition of dunking toast has not entirely disappeared - when I was at school, we were told that it was a French custom to dunk toast in coffee and so I started to do so, now and again.
: : I still have one very big coffee cup which facilitates such a dunk-fest, but I don't indulge much these days.
: : I have tried dunking toast in red wine, but the cool wine doesn't seem right saturating the toast.
: : Perhaps it works better with mulled wine?

: In the days of Charles II and earlier it was the custom to put pieces of toast into tankards of beer in order to improve the flavour. According to a story told in the Tatler, a celebrated beauty of the time was bathing in the Cross Bath in Bath. One of her admirers is said to have taken a glass of the water in which she was bathing and drunk her health to the assembled company. Another admirer, somewhat the worse for drink, said that he would jump into the water since, "although he liked not the liquor, he would have the toast", meaning, of course, the lady herself. From that time on we have drunk toasts.

"From that time on"? I think that your anecdote shows that we have drunk toasts from before that incident and it is an example of a gallant wit using an established practice as a metaphor - he would not have compared the woman to the toast, had toast in liquid not been commonplace already.

I will ask my friends at the Brewery History Society if they know of the first recorded practice.
(I also wonder if perhaps the carbon of burnt toast was some kind of primitive filter or had some practical application rather than just gastronomic)