Burnt Toast

Oven BallI don’t mean to whine, but if I remember correctly, I am plagued by absentmindedness…or is it forgetfulness? I can’t recall. To be honest, I am unclear whether they are even the same irritating affliction. The former seems to an acceptable, almost noble cross for the sufferer to bear as the price for struggling, in the name of constructive or oh-so-damn-important endeavors, to remain attentive to an unnatural volume of trivial matters – passwords, tax deadlines, your wedding anniversary, etc. The latter being the sad, irresistible decline inherent in racking up years on the planet.

I shouldn’t be alarmed. Like millions of my spectacle-losing, keys-misplacing peers, conceived in the fertile frenzy following V-day, I endure a niggling decay of memory synapses. I – we – do so with the same resignation that accompanies our bones’ creaky climb upwards through their sixth and seventh decades.

Niggling may be too kind.

To wit, I find myself earnestly shaking the hands of my wife’s friends’ husbands as I frantically scan empty memory banks for their damned names. I stare at the email I have so carefully crafted, uncertain whether or not I just clicked ‘send’. My associates have probably grown used to – or weary of – my follow-up messages begging their pardons at once again forgetting to include the attachment that the first email was intended to bear. I lose count of how many reps I’ve just completed at the gym. I lose my car. I forget to buy toothpaste, or worse, forget to include it on a shopping list of items especially intended to catalog what I have already forgotten so I won’t forget again. None of which I recall until the following night when I am faced with a flat, fully expired tube of Senior Sensodyne and am forced to accept the option of brushing the few good teeth I have left with baking soda, or resorting to a guilty squeeze from my grand daughter’s Princess Sparkle Paste.

Typical geezer’s complaint right? We all swallow these lapses with comic resignation. We are the butt of our own Alzheimer jokes, and we snicker along with our graying friends. Yet we peak at the NIH website for a definitive set of early symptoms that will confirm our fates or let us off the hook. We stop in the pharmacy aisles and steal a glance at the Ginkgo and B-12 supplements that, like Viagra for the brain, supposedly raise our mnemonic powers to reasonably acceptable heights. More recently we have been targeted with new interactive, computer-based ‘mental work-outs’ like Lumosity that promise – and I am sure deliver – improved cognitive capacity. The marketing wizards behind these products have bet the farm on the hope that we have already forgotten that we could settle down with a substantial book, take a stab at poetry, pick up a musical instrument, quit cheating on the NYT Crossword puzzle, and/or generally disengage from the media to similarly exercise our brains as we circle closer and closer to the drain. But damn, I love my Netflix.

It may be a blessing of the natural order of things that we dim somewhat as we approach the day when the inevitable deal goes down – a mercy that we don’t generally face our maker with a bright mind brimming with awareness and with all mental synapses firing as if awash in Red-Bull. But sometimes this dimming is a downright pain in the ass. In my case the pain is nowhere more regularly endured than in the kitchen, at that most revitalizing of all meals…breakfast. I burn toast. Often. Predictably. In fact, I must one day stand before the Supreme Being and my fellow burners (if you’re out there) and testify: I am incapable of managing my toaster.

It aggravates me because I love bread, and I have always craved toast. My wife, who is a nutritional educator, points out that my affection for gluten accounts for a goodly portion of the weight I fruitlessly labor to remove with those aforementioned reps. What makes all this worse, is the fact that I live in Portland, Oregon. I don’t get out enough I guess, but it has recently come to my attention my town has become somewhat of a scene for foodies, for gourmands de café, and for artisan bread aficionados. No doubt about it, there is some good chow here in rain country. There are more ascending young chefs – culinary Jackson Pollocks – striping and swooshing basil aeolis, wasabi-pomegranate reductions, or asian-tex-mex fusion enfusions across dinner plates here than anywhere west of the Big Apple. And we are blessed with an absurdity of serious coffee roasters, haute barista hipsters, boutique distillers, microbrewers, and my favorite: world-class patisseries.

OMG, let me count the ways: Grand Central Baking, Marsee Bakery, Ken’s Artisan Bread, the Trifecta, the Pearl Loaf…and the list goes on. The bread lover in Portland drifts through fragrant choices, stacked like treasures on these expert bakers’ shelves. All world-class bread, right up there with the wonders emerging from the wood fired ovens of Boulangerie Poilane in Paris. I am lucky to report that on countless, delirious occasion, I have marveled at the perfectly textured, irresistible slabs of toasting stock cleaved from these extraordinary loaves. I have tried them each and every one, and sadly, I have ruined the very best, including recently, my own. With a fatalistic acceptance at the wasting of our great grain lands’ resources, I have extracted the darkened husks of once-lively slices of Como Sourdough, Hawthorne Peasant, Belmont Olive Loaf, and Claremont Ciabatta from the glowing maw of my Toast Master.

My history of over-browning goes way back. I am, regretfully, old enough to remember the day my mother retired the old open-faced toaster, upon which two slices of bread were placed at opposing 75 degree angles just above the heating elements – like roofs on an A-frame. You toasted one side for a prescribed period, opened the artfully engraved access door, turned over your bread and counted down to beautiful toast. You see these wondrous appliances in museums now, but they were great. They demanded attention. Of course, such an attribute is considered a crucial design flaw in our ADHD world. It has now been almost sixty years since I lifted my last slice from the glowing face of that classic device. It seems like yesterday, but back then I had been considered a sure enough operator of the family toasting apparatus, that my parents entrusted me with their bread and the simple instructions: “light brown”, “just warmed” or the treacherous “medium dark”.

Maybe it was because the distractions in my young world were increasing faster than the inventiveness of small appliance engineers, but somehow, my reliability as a toaster of bread went to hell in a proofing basket when the first vertically loaded slot-type electrical resistance toasting apparatus appeared in the Anslow kitchen.

The spring-loaded eject mechanism and the timer were a revelation! Brightness was delineated by vaguely calibrated tick marks around the dial which denoted relative exposure times of bread-to-heating-element. It is hard to comprehend, but like the smart-phone, this technology accelerated to the point that these analog dials even sported colors: white, yellow, orange, dark brown, red! I can’t remember ever producing a slice of red toast, but why quibble in the face of such brilliance. The essential thing was, you couldn’t burn your toast unless you really tried.

My therapist informed me, recently in fact, that the root of my burning problem was, and is, anchored in the fact that in order to achieve a more nuanced level of, say, umber (no, not burnt umber), I try too hard. I attempt to override the predetermined brightness settings assigned to the timing mechanism, she explains, because in my soul I am a libertarian. A rebel. An artist. A poet and don’t know it. Her deductions regarding my pesky but benign problem, are testament to the vast knowledge behind a career’s worth of framed degrees and awards that glare down from a position on the wall located strategically above her couch. Woe unto the self-loathing depressive who sprawls in the imperious heat of her trophies.

Somehow, she managed to do me some good.

I am, as it turns out, psychologically unable to accept another’s instructions without some attempt at intervention. Evidently my Ego just has to stick its nose into everybody’s business. I must have been given a few bum steers as a child, and learned to compensate by mistrust and all that jazz. In the case of the love of my life – toast – this intervention presents itself as ejection of the slice before, or more dangerously, after, a preprogrammed hue is achieved. Fine. But this compulsive intervention/overriding of well-proven toasting protocols requires full attention in order to be successful; such attention was never a problem for me with the old A-frame. That elegant device gave me complete control because there were no controls. I may not have appreciated the Zen qualities of that toaster back then, but no matter, at that tender age I was blessed with a head full of fully functional neurons and ganglia. I had all the cerebral gear necessary to maintain the presence of mind required to flip open the toaster, check the bread, and if necessary return it to the elements as needed.

The A-frame was the perfect tool for a budding, neurotic artiste de toast. Unfortunately, the device was also a pain in the neck for the homemaker with six children to feed and shoo out the door. But with the introduction of Charles Strite’s pop-up toaster, the A-frame disappeared from kitchens at a pace roughly equivalent to the vanishing of the slide rule from engineering departments when the HP (or was it TI) electronic calculator appeared. With the acceptance of Stite’s brainchild in my mother’s kitchen, I was left in the wilderness – alone with the newly introduced vertical slot design we all know and tolerate. This ubiquitous appliance theoretically demands no attention, only a bit of faith in the calibrators of the timing mechanism and a de facto acceptance of their notion of “perfect” toast. So it becomes relevant to ask: Who are these guys? Is there a research and design laboratory somewhere beneath a granite mountain where, under color-corrected lighting, technicians sit with candidate toasters, color temperature meters, and stacks of Wonder Bread to determine an indices of browning, and there-from to establish a master calibration pattern from which the dials, slides or firmware are constructed?

They pass down The Word and consumers must sign on at their peril. If, like me, you wanted dark blonde but their “light” was too light, or you desired brown and their “medium dark” was too dark, you would have to snatch the bread from the toaster’s clutches with fingers or with your mother’s heirloom silverware. This method invited broken heating elements, death by electrocution, or worse: the Wrath of Mom. Alternatively, one could prematurely pop up the eject mechanism by brute force, usually at the cost of correct ejector performance later in the toaster’s life…which sounds uncomfortably familiar. In those days I wasted toast at about a three-to-one clip – one being edible. I have since (and I can’t say I have scientifically validated this improvement) reduced my wastage to 40%. That is: a little less that half of all bread that enters my toaster emerges a smoky ember of its former self. I attribute this improvement as much to my wife’s prodding for me to abandon my libertarian disregard for toaster controls, as to improvements in toasting technology. But still, nothing compensates for my lack of attention. It seems to defy common sense that in four out of ten attempts I can be so easily distracted from such a simple task, yet it happens.

Sometime understandably.

On a beautiful September morning in the fall of 2001, I had risen early to prepare for a flight to Las Vegas where I was to attend a trade exhibit for snack food sorting systems. I started coffee and sliced some bread, intending to bring java and cinnamon toast upstairs so my wife could linger until a respectable hour. She knew my plan, but after some time became curious as to why I hadn’t returned. When she finally drifted downstairs she found water boiling in the kettle, and me staring at the television in disbelief over the cataclysm unfolding in lower Manhattan. She never spoke. We both watched in horror, never noticing the twin columns of smoke rising from the Toast Master.

Sometimes memorably.

We can all be forgiven our distractions, and thankfully things have improved since that black morning. I, for one, am happy to report that I have gradually lowered my spoilage rate down into the solid 40% range I reported a few paragraphs back. But in arriving here I burned through several of Y2K’s best models in search of a machine that would assuage my phobia of complex controls as well as accommodate my resistance to conventional toasting protocol. Eventually in the dawn of the micro-processor era, I hit upon a decent Sears Whirlpool unit that featured a solid state control (probably nothing more than an improved timer) and promised – like Mr. Stiles – perfect toast.I knew better, but I let my expectations soar far too high, until one morning while laboring to make a raft of toast for my family, I snapped.

I had my reasons. I had tried hard to make the over-hyped mechanism work in my admittedly critical world. In an attempt to facilitate the toasting process and more efficiently serve four hungry daughters, one son and one wife, I devised a way to reduce the disruptive trips from breakfast table to toaster. I electrified our table.

On that morning when the mother of invention came to call, I obediently dashed to the garage. In an hour I had rigged up an extension cord and a standard 2 plug receptacle. Then to my wife’s horror, I embedded the fixture into the breakfast table’s oak top. Of course, thinking this creation might soon find its way onto the cover of Popular Mechanics, I finished it off nicely with a 95 cent ivory plastic faceplate – a fine contrast to the antique oak. The result was a nicely crafted electrical convenience that allowed coffee makers, waffles iron, radios, curling irons, hair dryers, and all manner of breakfast essentials to find their way to the morning table. This arrangement also allowed me to char my way through a stack of sliced bread in record time.

I had hoped otherwise. My intention was that on Sunday mornings with the whole fam damnly in attendance, I could stay in my seat. And with the power of semiconductor technology at my command, could focus more fully on the job at hand, thereby avoiding the usual smoky incidents, while saving a few bucks on lost bread. And I could give my chronic tennis elbow a break from the ravages of RSS (Repetitive Scraping Syndrome). It was not to be. The burning continued, perhaps at a slower rate than before, but, damn it, I had expected better. As far as I was concerned the table-top toasting concept and the new technology had failed me, and I was pissed.

In retrospect, all these years later, after immolating all manner of bread with ever more sophisticated units, I realize what everyone else knew all along: It was just me. But on that morning after elevating my hopes so high, such a mature self-accounting escaped me. Right there, before my hungry children’s eyes, I had yet again found distraction enough to burn the usual half loaf. Like a magician “working close”…abracadabra: under there very noses I turned white to black.

I wasn’t happy with my performance.

Enraged that all my efforts were for naught, I took action. An insane calm overcame me. In a dream, I slid my chair back from the table, tossed down my napkin and yanked the cord from the socket. I knew I wasn’t crazy (but my children had their doubts) because I had the presence of mind not to spill the OJ, or to disturb the plug of my daughter’s Lite-Briteas I gathered up the toaster and disappeared out the back door.

I can only imagine what the kids thought when they looked out the window as I reappeared in the driveway where I usually chopped our firewood. They might have giggled, or whimpered in fear, as I placed the offending appliance on the block and grabbed up the splitting maul. A few delirious swipes of the brutal tool did the trick. Plastic, stainless steel, and the tiny circuit board exploded into the suburban morning. I would not be tormented by that toaster again. I returned to the house feeling like Jack Torrance in The Shining. Without a word of explanation or apology for slaying the family toaster, I proceeded to make a stack of beautiful waffles.

Currently I use a Cusinart 4-slot Bagel Capable Toast Master which is equipped with the computing power of Eniac, or at least enough logic to enable the single greatest advance in toasting technology since Georg Ohm discovered resistance: the Cancel button. When I first saw a toaster that allowed you to interrupt the toasting process at will, I was as amazed as the first time I saw Steve Jobs drag a headline across his cuddly Macintosh’s screen. This broke new technological and cultural ground. The famous super bowl ad for the Mac promised freedom from The Man. Likewise, the new toasters offered liberation from the restraints of the primitive control systems. But the marvels of toasting technology (and we are avoiding any mention of the Sunbeam Toaster Oven here) had – and still have – a major and seemingly surmountable engineering deficit: No toaster offers a good visible indicator of the toast’s actual tone. It was and still is hit and miss to dial in your exact chroma. If you are farsighted, as I am, a close inspection of bread browning in the toaster is virtually impossible, and if you are nearsighted, you may lose nasal hair or contact lenses when peering into the slot. I always thought a tiny glass peephole in each side of a toaster would be right up there with Job’s graphic user interface and the “wissywig” concept – what you see is what you get. My brilliant little spy hole would offer exactly that.

Alas, I never worked for Apple or Kitchen Aid, yet neither have their technologies always worked for me. They presuppose the consumer will be content with the choices they have programmed, and if not, will be responsible or handy enough to work around those limitations without scrambling the tax returns, losing the family photos or burning the you-know-what out of the you know what. I accept this as a basic principle of civility in a technical world:

If you don’t accept the limitations of your parameters, then you must be responsible for the consequences of seeking to extend them.

There’s the rub. Although an admitted perfectionist/contrarian when it comes to toast, I am a responsible guy. At one time or another I have been a boy scout, a father, a business owner, a tax payer and a home owner. God knows I accept the consequences for my obstinacy in the face of darkness settings, but I have never abused toaster technologies frivolously or out of malicious rebellion. I know this to be true from a sad history dating back to the days before forgetfulness or absent-mindedness could be assigned to the ravages of age, or before I finally came to grips with the love of God and the ensuing realization that chronic over-browning was not a punishment for my attitude or lack of faith. The creator would never be so cruel. Therefore, in the absence of all conscious, mechanical or metaphysical reasons for burning, there could be a genetic link. It is not so difficult to comprehend: a sequence in my DNA that condemns me to forever stand before the sink with a butter knife and a blackened piece of seven grain bread, intent on salvaging the unlucky slice that fell into my care. Perhaps it is the vaunted double-helix itself that is ultimately responsible for disturbing the happy clatter of breakfast in our kitchen with that rhythmic scraping sound.

Now we were getting somewhere. Somewhere concrete, even if beyond correction. If this niggling disorder were genetic, maybe I could dispense with the Senior Brain Supplements, and ditch the Dhingophase Booster Bark(sic), both of which I adopted into my vitamin regime with nary a drop in the incidence of misplaced keys, forgotten passwords and worse. This promised to be great. I pictured visiting Johns Hopkins Genetic Sciences Department and asking if one of their post-docs might be interested in spending a couple of years of his or her life with me in a dubious effort to isolate and confirm whether a single sequence in the genome’s entire 1,300,000 something structure was associated with transitory cognitive impairment triggered specifically by the toasting of bread. They would look at me as if I really were nuts. Even if their thoroughbred brains could get a handle on such an advanced concept, it was less likely that they might imagine a greater good. Sadly, it was more likely still, that sharp minds would quickly realize distance themselves from such a preposterous notion as they pictured their chances at a Nobel Prize drifting away like a forgotten lyric.

But imagine if that notion could be confirmed. That merely a few A’s and E’s in my genome were misplaced…I would be vindicated, my breakfast guests would regard the scraped toast on their plates with sympathy. Somewhere in the Disabilities Act I might even find a tax write-off for all the wasted bread. And who knows, there might even be a simple psychiatric fix…I mean fix. But more importantly, being a good father, I would encourage the children to get similarly tested so they might avoid the burden of needlessly burning through a significant portion of their food budget.

And as for my wife?

I have come to peace with the fact that she, using the same toaster as me, prepares what well-adjusted people would consider fine golden toast. I have learned to silence the internal demon that rails at her acceptance of tonal imperfections, extracted at what I consider to be arbitrary settings, when the real beauty lies in the un-calibrated regions between medium and medium dark. And I have taken solace in the discovery of traditions of cooking in remote villages of Italy that have explored the beauty of artfully burned food. Which leads, somehow, to today – yesterday evening to be exact.

I recently took up sourdough bread – baking as well as eating – as a hobby. My son, after a decade of diligence, has arrived at a virulent starter that yields gorgeous, flavorful bread. In the search for a cheaper alternative to the loaves Portland’s hipster bakeshops produce, I have followed his lead. Last night, stricken with pride at the crusty, sour boule emerging from my oven, I resolved to document the creation with a couple of photos. It took two hours of torturous cooling for the wondrous gases to perform their flavor-making magic on the heavenly manna locked within the thick crust. Mmm, I could wait, and in the interim, I arranged a handsome still-life.

When the timer finally tinkled a go-ahead to violate the perfect crust, I sliced off three stunning slabs for the composition. I photogenically arranged two beside the open boule. By then the seductive aroma escaping from the bread had filled the kitchen. It overcame me. I could not miss an opportunity to taste fresh dark toast from a virgin cut of warm sourdough, so the critical third slice, regardless of the mathematics underlying compositional theory, went not into the set, but into the toaster.

I flicked the dial to dark, knowing from experience with the Toast Master, that a cycle on what they called “dark” was too light for my palate, and that two full cycles through that setting would burn. But stopping 20 seconds shy of completing the second cycle would produce a bronze-like shade that was truly exquisite. I plunged the ejection lever down and got to work.

I twiddled my camera and fiddled with the set. The image in the viewfinder was coming together. Halogen lights above the counter brought the subtle spectrum, of what can only be chromatically described as the “bread” tones, to glorious life. I was ready to shoot when, up popped the toast. Cycle one. Without a thought I reached across the counter and pressed the lever again. I turned the lights above the counter to several different angles then snapped off a few hopeful shots. A quick preview revealed an image that, to a bread lover’s eye, was perfection. The texture of the crumb, the flake on the cleaved crust, the sheen off the boule’s sensuous round surface…a prize winning shot of such visual glory that I forgot how wonderful the bread in the toaster would taste. For safety’s sake, I was about to click on the camera’s HDR mode to guarantee a good dynamic range when my wife walked into the kitchen.

I looked up from the camera, smiling like a child at my accomplishment: My first truly stunning loaves and a great photograph to boot. She glanced at the appealing still-life on the counter, then at me. Apparently she didn’t share my enthusiasm. She wasn’t smiling. The poor woman exhaled in exasperation, and in sympathy, my smile crumbled. My eyes followed hers from the bright bronze crust of my sourdough to the adjacent counter where the first wisps of smoke were curling from the Toast Master.

In a moment the smoke alarm would squeal like a banshee…again.