The British Toast Rack
I think the British toast rack is the epitome of pointless and counterproductive control. Why bother to stoically present toast in a rack when you can just ambush it with butter as it pops out of toaster. Strangely enough though, I do know of British people who are uncomfortable with hot melted butter flows. I guess it makes sense that the person who likes to trap toast in a rack would also like the controlled certainty of cold hard butter.
Thomas Thwaites’ The Toaster Project, has elements very much in common with the artisans at the Mezimbite Forest Centre in Mozambique:
Like Mezimbite artisans, Thomas sourced original materials to make his product. Mezimbite artisans, just like Thomas with his toaster, make things from scratch;
They harvest noble hardwood trees in order to craft their products, which include fine furniture and jewelry for sale. Meanwhile, Thomas has sourced rocks, sludge and iron ore to make the plastic mould and iron framework of his toaster.
However, while there are similarities with Mezimbite artisans, there are also differences:
- The artisans at Mezimbite make exquisite, aesthetically pleasing, and artistically inspired cabinets, chairs, tables, salad bowls and jewelry. The aesthetics of Thomas’ finished product however, cannot be described accurately within the decent language constraints of our editorial guidelines.
- The Mezimbite artisans, as part of a sustainable forest community, are very cost and materials conscious: There is no waste of resources, and the artisans produce high quality, low cost products which are sold at a fair trade value. Thomas’ toaster however, cost about 250 times the price of what a normal toaster would cost – the kind you and I would buy at a retail outlet.
- The sustainable culture of Mezimbite is infused into its long lasting and durable products. The furniture that the artisans make lasts not only a lifetime but also many generations. Meantime, Thomas’ toaster functioned for about 2 seconds before it began to self-destruct.
- The Mezimbite artisans have little formal education – most never even completed high school. Thomas however, was educated at the very prestigious Royal College of Art.
In June of this year, the Mezimbite team will shoot a short documentary in Mozambique, in which we shall interview these remarkable artisans who undergo a rigorous five-year apprenticeship as carpenters and journeymen.
Meantime, we are conducting an interview with a fellow who has built a ghastly contraption that works for only 2 seconds before it self-destructs.
In our humility, we take what we can get over here at the Mezimbite Magazine.
Once we get started on asking Thomas about The Toaster Project, he will likely tell us all about it in great detail, with great enthusiasm.
However, the subject Thomas is avoiding, the subject he would prefer you readers not to know about, is toast itself, particularly when it comes to British people like Thomas.
I am sure he would not like you to know about the ritual of eating toast in the UK, particularly as it relates to restaurants and teashops and hotels where it is served.
As editor of this magazine however, I am obliged to maintain a level of transparency and journalistic integrity. We need to address the matter of toast, before we move on to his toaster:
Like Thomas, I spent my school years in the UK. Unlike Thomas, I am Indian. So I have cultural perspective on British toast from my old dad. He used to say, when we stayed in an English bed and breakfast on holiday in Dorset on the south coast of England:
“I tell you these Britishers:
“I mean to say they invent the tea cozy to keep the tea nice and hot, and then they invent the toast rack to keep the toast nice and cold ? Now what kind of people these are? When you take a piping hot paratha out of the tandoori oven, you wrap it in a tea towel and put it in a wooden bowl with a fit lid, isn’t it? That way paratha it stays nice and warm, no? Any Indian knows that. But these Britishers they invent a open air toast rack, so toast, it can be becoming cold as fast as possible.
“Goodness gracious, isn’t it?”
Yes. It is. My old dad was right. In fact, cold toast is a British tradition.
I corroborated this very fact with a British gentleman who serves on our Editorial Panel: Harvard Professor Jeremy Geidt. Jeremy probably has as much to say about cold toast as Thomas has to say about his toaster.
The toast rack, insists Jeremy, is the enemy of the British people.
Jeremy is an actor at the American Repertory Theatre (ART). He was trained at the Old Vic Theatre School in London, played Hamlet with Richard Burton in Iceland; came to America in the 1960’s and helped found the Yale Rep where he taught Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Henry Winkler.
He then went on to help found the ART. Allan Schwarz, the founder of Mezimbite and a South African, was delighted to learn that Jeremy helped dissident “banned” playwrights such as Athol Fugard stage plays at Yale Rep during the Apartheid years.
As a Brit, Jeremy was relentlessly teased by American playwright David Mamet, a former writer-in-residence at the ART, about the “cold-toast districts” in London. Unctuous, because Jeremy’s wife of near 50 years, Jan, is a collector of fine antique toast racks.
As Mamet gleefully writes:
“We always refer to London as the cold-toast district. Greg was over in London directing a play of mine. He’d been there for some weeks. I came over, and we had breakfast. We met in the restaurant of the hotel, and I spied on the menu ‘Hot Buttered Toast’.
“Let’s order it,” I suggested merrily, but he did not laugh when the toast arrived, cold as earth, limp, and sodden.”
– playwright David Mamet
Just One Question
Jeremy, do you have any elder wisdom for Thomas?
Response from Jeremy
“Thomas my dear, as a fellow Brit let me assure you that the British toast rack, and not the toaster, should be your number one priority. It is the toast rack that is the enemy of the British people. John Kenneth Galbraith, one of our greatest benefactors here at the American Repertory Theatre used to say to me:
‘Jeremy my friend, let the toast rack never come between us – especially at breakfast’. Ambassador Galbraith put it delicately and diplomatically.
And then there was the much more forthright but sincere statement from George W. Bush, our former President here in America who used to say on behalf of all us British people:
‘A rack is our enemy’.
No truer words have ever been spoken.
The Cold War may well be over, but, thanks to the British toast rack, the Cold Toast War continues to place the Special Relationship between Britain and America in a jam. So put your most dubious and diminishing talents to better use Thomas, and invent a toast rack for the British people that will actually keep our beloved morning toast warm.
So I can have hot-buttered toast in London with Mamet – better still, with Dundee marmalade.
“On a more serious note Thomas, your work reminded me of something from the works of Shakespeare. It is one of his most beloved characters, Henry Percy (Hotspur), who says in that glorious monologue as he kneels before his king, that begins: ‘My liege, I did deny no prisoners.’ Towards the end, as he talks about his time on the battlefield, he laments:
“’And it was a great pity, so it was,
This villainous saltpeter should be digged
Out of the bowels of the harmless earth..’
“What Shakespeare’s Hotspur is referring to here has to do with science and technology:
“Hotspur is lamenting the mining of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), which is an essential ingredient in the making of gunpowder and hence in the emergence of cannon warfare. He is concerned about this advance in technology because it threatens the code of honour of chivalry. You see, Hotspur is an old school nobleman, trained in swordsmanship but most importantly, trained in restraint and mercy when facing his opponent.
A time in history when casualties of war were kept to a minimum and lives were spared with grace and even forgiveness. Because people saw their enemy face-to-face, human-being-to-human-being, eye-to-eye … they were not impersonal targets on a canon swivel, or digital images on a computer screen. They were human beings, in the flesh.
“Now, things are different for Hotspur: The recent discovery of gunpowder (which the Chinese had mastered centuries before), combined with the mining of saltpeter, meant that any old fool on the mercenary payroll could light a match to a cannon and blast a castle wall to rubble. And become a hero for doing so. The technology of warfare had just become accessible as a mass consumer product, where chivalry was no longer a necessary qualification. Money was.
It would be like an actor who knew not a word of Shakespeare, making a fortune as a reality television star. This was no longer the age of Lawrence Olivier. Enter now, the age of Kim Kardashian. Henry VIII, when fighting France in 1544 AD, was short of gunpowder. But his coffers were full of gold, and so he bought sacks of gunpowder from mercenary Antwerp merchants and won the war. Gold won his war for him, not chivalry. Chivalry was suddenly quaint. And the mighty and noble Hotspur became rapidly out-dated and redundant.
The movie business has worked very assiduously to discourage you and other intelligent, discerning people. They have worked hard to get rid of you because you don’t go then and buy toys and games.
– Meryl Streep
“To me, Hotspur is not unlike the artisans at Mezimbite Forest Centre:
“They believe and practice a certain code, a certain way of life, that emphasizes restraint and respect as character qualities. They live according to the rhythms and cycles of nature, staying close to values that may seem quaint and outdated in our modern mechanized world. But in that quaintness lays their truth and treasure. They undergo a rigorous and thorough apprenticeship, which is why they can take such pride in their craftsmanship.
Did you know that the young Leonardo spent a full two years learning to grind and mix pigments and make paint when he apprenticed with Verrocchio? He was not permitted to put brush to canvas until he learned these elements. That is the ethic of an artisan. Now it’s all Damien Hirst and his merry mob of manipulative marketing agents.
When I taught at the Old Vic Theatre School in London, I encouraged my students to learn to fence, to sketch, to draw, to stitch and mend costumes, to hammer and saw wood and build the stage scaffolding, to study paintings and history and language, before they ever set a single foot upon the stage and spoke a single line. That is what players did in Shakespeare’s day at The Globe. They were artisans.
Daniel Day-Lewis actually wanted to be an artisan: He applied for a five-year Mezimbite-type artisan apprenticeship to learn to be a carpenter, journeyman and master cabinet maker. But he was rejected and so he came to the Old Vic instead. Fortunately, he brought the artisan ethic with him. He learned that from his dad Cecil, I imagine – a brilliant poet.
The big movie business in which Daniel and Meryl find themselves is a cluttered consumer cacophony of phony tie-ins with plastic toxic toys and deafening digital arcade games. Authentic actors who are dedicated artisans, and their audiences who love stagecraft, have increasingly become outliers and outcasts because Hollywood has become a load of old cobblers – which is precisely why Daniel decided to take off and learn how to make shoes.
This past Sunday, Meryl said to Morley on 60 Minutes:
“That’s called the narrowing of the audience. The movie business has worked very assiduously to discourage you and other intelligent, discerning people from the… movie theater. They have worked hard to get rid of you because you don’t go then and buy toys and games.”
Artisan and artist have become quaint words in our day.
And the mass consumer products and the very commercialism of our modern culture are, like gunpowder in Hotspur’s day, now available abundantly. Consumerism has run away with itself. It has become an unrestrained and demoralizing force. And the endangered species in this new equation, is our very soul.
Just One Question
Thomas, how does The Toaster Project relate to Hotspur’s concern about innovative new technologies in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part I?
Response from Thomas
Jeremy and Karim:
That is certainly the most amusing pre-amble to a toast related question I have ever had the pleasure and misfortune to read!
For I now feel compelled to point out that finer minds than mine have already devoted themselves to solving the cold toast problem, and have beaten it, multiple times over the past hundred years.
The most recent cold toast solution is described in US Patent Number 6523458 was awarded in 2003 for a ‘Portable Toast Warmer Apparatus’, described as consisting of two parts, the upper part (looking much like the hated toast rack), comprising ‘a means for receiving the transmitted electromagnetic energy so that foodstuff slices may be warmed with the plurality of heaters mounted on the walls of the upper part’.
And just in case the toast should be needed to be kept warm for a very long time or, due to some global catastrophe, the mains electrical grid should fail… ‘The upper part of the portable toast warmer also comprises a battery so that the toasted foodstuff slices may continue to be heated when the upper part is decoupled from the lower part, so that the upper part containing the toasted foodstuff slices may be conveniently delivered to any desired location such as a dining room table’.
Hotspur, who actually is a soldier, must also be a pragmatist – he knows there is no way of re-burying the Saltpeter, just as we know there is tragically no way of un-inventing the toast rack.
So, there you go, toasted foodstuff slices, delivered hot to any desired location! The reason I cite this patent in such detail, is I find it comical (in a tragic kind of way) that such resources should be proposed to be thrown at something so trivial (yes, I said it) as cold toast.
Especially when the solution was already being articulated by Karim’s dad I don’t know how many years ago.
So, rather than (re)invent another technological cold toast solution, I choose rather to un-invent the toast rack, and promote some ancient wisdom from the Far East, i.e. wrapping the toast in a tea towel.
But like Hotspur, I know that in reality, you can’t un-invent something. And I’m no scholar of Shakespeare (in fact seeing your question Jeremy immediately took me back to that fearful moment of ‘you may turn over your papers now’, and a psychosomatic aching wrist from being a teenager (after a three hour exam)), but I have googled it, and find that Hotspur is actually making fun of the lamentations of a foppish ‘popinjay’ messenger, who claims that ‘…he would himself have been a soldier’.
I put forward that Hotspur, who actually is a soldier, must also be a pragmatist – he surely knows there is no way of re-burying the Saltpeter, just as we know there is tragically no way of un-inventing the toast rack.
But yes, gunpowder technology arrives and makes the technology of warfare a mass consumer product, and killing a knight becomes as easy as killing a peasant – it levels the battlefield so to speak. But perhaps this isn’t necessarily such a bad thing, because although the chivalrous code of honor would’ve applied to some. it wasn’t exactly egalitarian. And while there were very noble knights, there were doubtless other knights who ruled their vassals with impunity and were total bastards, who could do with a bit of leveling.
Perhaps the artisans at Mezimbite would like to expand their range in to objects that are more often thought of as produced en-masse. An artisan toaster? I think that could work.
So I suppose I’m in favour of any mass consumer technology that enables the masses to have or do something previously reserved for an elite, and I don’t think this necessarily debases culture. Of course the invention of the electric toaster was one small enabling factor in the long list that meant even those without a butler were able to easily prepare themselves toast. And it’s the same internet that transmits OMGs about Kim Kardashian as transmits the protests in the Arab Spring.
Surely there’s always been both the Lawrence Oliviers and Kim Kardashians, it’s just that Olivier is remembered when all his many contemporary Kardashians are long forgotten?
Mass consumer products aren’t necessarily evil, and indeed they are necessary.
One of the only things about the future we can be fairly sure of is that there are likely to be more people alive tomorrow than there are today. So in the same way that there is room forboth the ‘Kim Kardashians’ and ‘Lawrence Oliviers’ in society today, there’s also room for mass consumer products and the work of the artisans of Mezimbite.
But to dismiss Hotspur’s concerns about the loss of chivalry and honor brought on by new technology as just a case of looking back with rose tinted spectacles isn’t right either. There is so much that is wrong with the incessant grinding turnover of soulless products. So I think that where the challenge lies is in somehow finding a way to infuse a respect for things into mass consumer culture… a broader realisation that objects kind of have a soul of their own, based on where they come from, how they’re used, and where they go if and when they die.
Perhaps the artisans at Mezimbite would like to expand their range into objects that are more often thought of as produced en-masse. An artisan toaster? I think that could work
International Scholars of The British Toast Rack:
Peter and Margaret Crumpton
This book discusses the history of toast – a peculiarly British way of serving bread – and illustrates over 1000 ceramic toast racks from late 18th C to present day.
The design and decoration of the toast racks manufactured by so many of the English potteries makes it a fascinating subject for collecting. Printed, painted or moulded, the decoration takes many forms but usually in the house-style of the manufacturer and the dividers, as they are known, come in numerable shapes usually pierced to allow the toast to dry.
It is hard to identify early toast racks; throughout the 19th C and 20th C most are factory marked including:
Wedgwood, Crown Devon, Royal Wilton, Carlton, Burgess & Leigh, Shorter, Beswick, Poole Pottery, Denby, Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper.
By Karim, Editor-in-Chief, Mezimbite Magazine