MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Thursday is National Toast Day, and special correspondent and former WCCO senior political reporter Pat Kessler has a personal essay to share on the topic of toast, so warm up the countertop appliance.
On the day his old kitchen toaster was finally, well…”toast”, my elderly father-in-law required an immediate replacement.
That is how we ended up on the second floor of a junior department store in “Home Goods”, at the top of the escalator near the luggage department and down the aisle from discount bedding.
The toasters had their own display apart from other common kitchen appliances, in part I suppose because of their special cultural status.
Almost every American household has a toaster, uses it every single day, and then DISPLAYS IT ON THE COUNTERTOP.
Some farm families where I grew up even had specially sewn fitted cloth covers to stylishly drape the valued appliance when not in use.
On this day, the sight of so many shiny new toasters with such magnificent modern features unlocked for my father-in-law a sea of childhood memories.
In his 90th year, he could still describe for me with clarity and in vivid detail his family’s Sunbeam two-slice Toastmaster and the many days as a boy he sat at the kitchen table as his mother made breakfast.
Most of us are exactly the same.
For years, just for fun, my personal toaster of choice was a vintage 1960s Procter Silex with green plastic edges and chrome sides, part of a once vast toaster treasure trove I purchased at an estate sale one sunny weekend afternoon.
I had wandered from the kitchen to the basement and found myself in the musty pantry of the grand old house, suddenly staring at wooden shelves lined with old toasters.
Not a collection, exactly.
More like an afterthought–the final resting place for every toaster the family had ever owned but couldn’t bear to throw away.
They appeared to have been discarded near the end of their useful toasting lives and then forgotten on basement shelves that might once have also held canned peaches and tomatoes.
To me, standing alone, the light breaking through the dirty basement window was like a beacon shining on America.
Shining on early electric toasters with insulated cords from the 1930s, art deco models from the 1930s and 40s, a heavy chrome bomb-shaped toaster from the 1950s and a handful of sleek modern 1960s versions also.
They were beckoning me back to my own childhood.
Growing up, our very large family rarely purchased unnecessary luxuries like soda pop or potato chips, never candy, and sweets only occasionally.
But bread for toast was cheap and plentiful, and my parents weekly bought flat crates with loaves of day-old white and wheat bread at the bakery outlet store in town.
We used oleo margarine instead of butter because it was cheaper, but it required us to mix a stick of white lard with an orange food coloring pill that came inside the carton which, once blended, gave it an approximate butter-ish color and consistency.
For me and my 12 brothers and sisters, toast was not just for breakfast, it was our anytime snack, including many a late night gathering over toast with “butter” and jam, or cinnamon and sugar.
My wife, who is patient and kind, barely raised an eyebrow when I brought home my estate sale toaster treasures and laid them out on our garage floor, like a dog who proudly lays a dead rabbit at the back door.
A neighbor who happened by stopped in his tracks and pointed, wide eyed.
“That’s like the toaster we had when I was a boy!” he exclaimed..
Spontaneously, I gave it to him, and he wandered off cradling it under his arm like a favorite childhood toy lost for many years and now found.
Some of my friends and family had similar reactions.
And so it happened that I gave away 12 toasters in total- to my children, my brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, friends.
I kept for myself a 1940s Samson chrome plated metal masterpiece with brown Bakelite handles including a turning wheel in the in the middle of one side.
It had the look and feel of a sweeping steel Buick bumper with the unusual design advantage of heating two slices in a single line.
At the Department Store my father-in-law bought a new toaster for both of us, with modern settings like “defrost” and “reheat” and “bagel”.
My new toaster is brand-named “Avante”, which in Italian means “progress”, and it has sleek curved black plastic sides that don’t burn your fingers when you touch it.
Returning home, I carried my 1960s toaster to the basement and put it on a shelf next to the paint brushes and an old rotary dial telephone that I’ve saved for some reason.
Upstairs, I made a piece of toast, understanding now that it’s not about the toaster.
It’s about the memory.