Why Artisan Toast Is Not Artisanal

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There’s a piece of scorched cinnamon toast on the kitchen counter. I was making it for my daughter’s breakfast this morning, and I left it under the broiler for about 20 seconds too long, so we defaulted to cereal because today is a school day and we needed to get going. This, sadly, is the fate of about half of the cinnamon toast I make for her, and even though I have the experience and knowledge base to excel at making toast, poor cinnamon toast all too often falls victim to the blackening of the weekday morning rush of packing a lunch box and brewing coffee and letting the dog outside to pee. Good cinnamon toast can’t be simply toasted in a toaster and then buttered and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. It must be broiled. This melds the butter and melting sugar to create a sweet lacquer, and it wakes up the flavor of the cinnamon, and it gets the very outer edges of the crust a bit more brown than our regular slot toaster can manage.

Yet our broiler is persnickety, and if I were a true toast artisan, I would not leave the spot as I subjected the slice of toast to the blazing orange glow of the broiler. I would closely monitor its progress and pull it at exactly the right moment of peak browning, with just a hint of char in just the right spots. I am not a toast artisan. In fact, there’s no such thing as a toast artisan.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about this subject more than I’d like to. This week, four article pitches on artisan toast landed in my inbox, and I cannot help but read them with a resigned sigh. It’s not so much the toast; toasted bread is delicious, and it’s even more so when topped with something else delicious. It’s the terminology. The supposed current mania for artisan toast strikes me as being rooted in something more than good eating. It’s about our hunger for charmingly absurd trends and our desire to fetishize food, as if it were a series of trading cards to verify our devotion to all things delightful and edible. “I’ll swap you two vegan doughnut food trucks for an assortment of artisan toast!” “Throw in some of that heirloom baby romanesco from the farmers’ market and it’s a deal.”

It’s also about the meaning of words evolving, a process that’s natural and silly to resist, yet resist I do. In my favorite dictionary (Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, fifth edition, published in 1947) the entry for artisan reads “one trained in some mechanic art or trade; a handicraftsman.” I have high doubts that, for every gastropub and wine bar with fancy toast on the menu, there’s a skilled, specially trained toast artisan in the kitchen. Peek through those doors and you’ll find chefs and cooks, and they already have titles: chefs and cooks. Assuming they are not hacks, their talents easily include the toasting of bread.

But we’ve pulled and stretched the word artisan to indicate not the skills of the person making it, but the handcrafted nature of the item itself. Your English teacher would say the correct modifier would be “artisanal” if it’s describing toast, or salt blend, or a gussied-up fast food burger, or a box of crackers, or a bottle of salad dressing. Companies are now trotting all of these items out and proclaiming them to be artisan, effectively neutering the word.

Though you could say affixing “artisan” to “toast” beat Big Food to it. The guilty party would be us, the media. We did it. We took a thing that’s been happening for years, in both fine restaurants and home kitchens—namingly, subjecting a slice of bread to a powerful dry heat source and then potentially topping said bread with one or several accompaniments—and crowning it as a phenomenon. You can Google it and see a gaggle of stories on publications and news outlets I generally respect. The headlines more or less read “Yes, Artisan Toast Is a Thing.”

Of these stories, the best by far is “A Toast Story” by John Gravios, which appeared in 2014 in Pacific Standard. It’s fantastic because while artisan toast is the legitimate spark of the story, it eventually winds up being a MacGuffin; Gravios ultimately reveals a compelling character study of a San Francisco woman who serves only coconuts, grapefruit juice, coffee, and cinnamon toast at her café, Trouble. She serves these things not because they are twee and precious-sounding when clustered together in a sentence, but because each item has great significance to her, for reasons so moving it accidentally reveals the frivolity of elevating toast to a trend for the farce it is.

I’ve happily been eating toast in many forms, at many times of day, for nearly all of my life. Lately, I’ve really enjoyed toasting thin slices of dense German rye bread and smearing it with braunschweiger. For the toast to come out right, I have to run it through two cycles in my slot toaster on the darkest setting, because good European rye breads have a lot of moisture and take a while to get properly crisp. I’m exacting in the execution, smearing the cheeky pink braunschweiger out to the very edges or the toast so the coverage is even and thorough. Then I put a glissade of stone-ground mustard on there and top it all with a thick slice of fresh homegrown tomato and a thin slice of Swiss cheese. That gets popped under the broiler, and unlike the cinnamon toast, I never burn my braunschweiger concoction. Once the cheese is bubbling and golden-brown in spots, I remove it to a plate and let it cool down for five minutes or so (impatient, I once burned my tongue and the roof of my mouth on the steaming-hot broiled cheese and then was not able to taste much for the following three days, so I have learned my lesson about the importance of the five-minute cooling period).

My braunschweiger concoction is exquisite, a symphony of flavors and textures and temperatures. I don’t call it fancy toast or gourmet toast or artisan toast. I don’t call it anything, except good. It’s more than the sum of its parts, just like cinnamon toast. Perhaps tomorrow morning I will slow down and give my daughter’s cinnamon toast the proper monitoring it deserves. Maybe I’ll ask her to come over and peek into the oven with me so we can see its transformative magic together, as the butter sizzles and the sugar bubbles up a bit and the aroma of the whole thing starts to pop. Maybe I’ll make two pieces, one for me and one for her. We will eat our toast, which will not be burned, and we will be artisans of simple pleasures.

Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor, and the author of the The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook.

Photo by Alan Levine CC BY

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