Toast seems, at first glance, like something too ubiquitous to even post about. However, the humble, rectangular toast is such an important part of our culture that I just could not ignore it.
Toast is made by exposing a slice of bread to heat. Toast is an essential breakfast food, often served at restaurants with a breakfast order without even asking for it. Many people enjoy toast with butter, and some even put jam or jelly on top. In England, orange marmalade is a popular toast-topper. The French like Nutella on their toast. Additionally, dry toast is a lovely option when you are sick to your stomach (read: vomiting).
But let’s look deeper at this rectangular breakfast treat. What is the chemical process that turns bread into toast? Wikipedia tells us that toast becomes toast due to a Maillard Reaction. A Maillard Reaction is “a type of non-enzymatic browning…[resulting] from a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, usually requiring heat.” It was named after a chemist named Louis-Camille Maillard. Ok. Clear enough. Now for the nonsense:
“The reactive carbonyl group of the sugar reacts with the nucleophilic amino group of the amino acid, and forms a complex mixture of poorly characterized molecules responsible for a range of odors and flavors. This process is accelerated in an alkaline environment (e.g., lye applied to darken pretzels), as the amino groups are deprotonated and, hence, have an increased nucleophilicity. The type of the amino acid determines the resulting flavor. This reaction is the basis of the flavoring industry. At high temperatures, acrylamide can be formed.“
If you understand that, God bless you. I certainly don’t. But I figure I must have some science freaks among my readership, and babies, that was for you.
Since I found out I could no longer eat gluten, I’ve really missed toast with butter. Gluten-free bread is pretty universally nasty. But I’ve recently found that when toasted, or made into grilled cheese, it’s palatable. I bought a beautiful red toaster off Amazon for 14.99, and I’ve become a toasting queen. I ate toast with butter for breakfast this morning, in fact! And it was delish.
Part of the charm of toast is that it has other diverse uses than a breakfast staple. Some sandwiches are traditionally made on toast. I have fond memories of eating tuna on toast at the pool with my parents. Just writing about it makes me want one rull bad. BLT sandwiches (Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato, for those who have lived their sad, sad lives without ever experiencing one) are also traditionally made on toast slathered with mayonnaise.
I would be remiss not to address some more unconventional rectangular toasts in this post. First, let’s cover French toast. French toast consists of a slice of bread soaked in egg and pan-fried in butter. It is often eaten with maple syrup. In French, they call it “pain perdu,” meaning “lost bread,” because they used the stale bread that they otherwise would throw away and made it into something edible. Because of the inclusion of the egg-soak, French toast actually has a bit of nutritional value.
Another rectangular toast variation is Melba Toast. Melba Toast used to be one of my favorite snacks. It is super, super dry, and very thin and crunchy. There’s a special flavor to it that is probably also a result of some sort of Maillard Reaction, and I’ve always really liked it. Wikipedia tells us that Melba Toast “is named after Dame Nellie Melba, the stage name of Australian opera singer Helen Porter Mitchell. Its name is thought to date from 1897, when the singer was very ill and it became a staple of her diet. The toast was created for her by chef and fan Auguste Escoffier.”
All in all, the humble, rectangular piece of toast is a staple that has survived through the centuries. It is crunchy and delicious, especially when bathed in butter. Thank you, toast, for sustaining us until lunchtime. Thank you for improving our BLTs. And thank you for settling our tummies when we drank too much the night before.
I can’t sleep without a blanket on top of me. I need that weight to feel safe and secure and relaxed. Ideally, that weight is made up of a down comforter – which is cool in the summer and cozy-warm in the winter. I love me a good down comforter. I don’t like sheets – too much work, and they get too tangled. So I tend to just sleep under my comforter, and feel happy and secure.
Buckley loves a good down comforter, too. He likes the soft, cushy feeling underneath his curled up, sleepy body. But, lately, he’s gotten into the unfortunate habit of chewing on it.
Yes. Buckley, the shittiest-yet-loviest-dog-in-the-world, has destroyed two down comforters of mine. The most significant side effect of a ruined down comforter, other than the cold, is a room. full. of. feathers.
Seriously. So many feathers. I would go out with friends and they’d inevitably remark upon the feathers in my hair or on my clothes. So. Many. Feathers.
Now, I tried to sew these comforters up. So many times. But, eventually, the holes and tears got un-fixable. The first time, I took a comforter from my parents’ house. But this time – the most recent, second time, I had to buy a $170 comforter off Amazon. Until it arrived, I borrowed an ugly, striped duvet from my loving parents. It helped to curb the feathers, but didn’t fix the problem. Now, I’m a Jew. A serious Jew. And spending that kind of money on a quilt hurts, even if I had the cash to spare. Which I don’t.
So, now I have a new (much thinner) fancy down comforter. And Buckley spends the first, dicey half of the night in his crate. I don’t like it, and neither does he. We would both prefer to be cuddling. But, hey. A cozy bed full of down is important, and, sorry Buckley, but we have to get our priorities straight. I love you, but I love my cozy, insulated bed more. Instead, I’ll dream about a warm, furry, red body curled up against mine, since I don’t have any sort of puppy-dog-replacement. Until then, we’ll have to compromise – to keep the peace and the comforter intact.
Graham crackers, classic rectangular snack, have a fascinating history. We’re going to turn to our good friend Wikipedia to learn about it.
The graham cracker was invented in 1829 by a Presbyterian minister named, predictably, Sylvester Graham. Originally, they were made with graham flour – a course and bland flour. Graham invented these crackers as part of his “Graham Diet,” intended to curb “unhealthy carnal urges, the source of many maladies.” I assume he made them rectangular because the rectangle is the most sensible of the shapes. He was fairly obsessed with masturbation, and convinced that a bland diet could suppress the sexual appetite. Praise Jesus.
Fortunately for our sex lives, graham crackers are now made mostly from white flour, Graham’s great enemy, and sweetened with refined sugar, another great evil. They are often fed to children in daycare or preschool, although why that is, I’m not sure. Probably because they are bland, enjoyed by everyone, and easy on the stomach. Also, they dissolve in your mouth, so no choking hazard (by the way, that dissolving factor was always my favorite part of the Graham cracker experience. I liked to hold the cracker between my tongue and the roof of my mouth until it dissolved. Yum!).
The best graham crackers I’ve ever had are sold at Modern Times Coffeehouse, underneath Politics and Prose bookstore in DC. They are made by Pollystyle, a local bakery owned by a lovely woman named Polly. They’re perfectly slightly crunchy, only slightly sweet, and unbelievably delicious. I miss them dearly. They used to taste great with a cup of coffee (something else I’ve given up – it makes my nose and gums itchy). So, so yum.
One great use of the graham cracker is a graham cracker crust. Although a pie is (rarely) rectangular, it is still a delicious, if inferior, treat. The graham cracker crust is a classic crust on a cheesecake. I love it for chocolate pudding pie. And I’ve recently found it to be a delicious crust for a key lime pie. It’s usually made by mixing butter (and maybe some salt) with craham cracker crumbs, which is then pressed into a pan, and baked for a bit. Very yum.
Perhaps the most culturally significant use of the graham cracker is in the classic campfire treat called the S’more. The rectangular S’more is made of a toasted marshmallow (I’ve always preferred mine charred) and a bit of (rectangular) chocolate bar squished between two graham cracker squares. It’s not particularly gourmet, but anyone who’s had one would acknowledge that the S’more is extremely sweet but pretty delicious.
Thank you, Reverend Graham, for developing this delicious rectangular treat. Sorry it hasn’t curbed my libido.
Ah, saltines. Food of the Gods, when the Gods have the flu. Or feel like eating some soup. Bland? Sure. But salty? Absolutely. So salty. The pretzel ain’t got shit on our friend the saltine when it comes to the salt factor.
Now, I wasn’t allowed to have junk food growing up. Remember Combos? Those were a no-go. Bugles? No way, Jose. And don’t even start with me on Doritos. So, I ate a lot of saltines.
And thank God for that.
My parents must have foreseen my personal values and standards from an early age. After all, what do those junky snacks all have in common?
They’re not rectangles.
That’s right, folks. Not. Rectangles. So, fuck them, they have no place in this blog.
Now that we’ve covered that, let’s get back to the rectangular topic on hand – the saltine.
According to our helpful pal Wikipedia, a saltine is “a thin, usually square cracker made from white flour, shortening, yeast, and baking soda…lightly sprinkled with coarse salt.”
The saltine was the first cracker to be leavened with baking soda. It was invented in 1876 by F.L. Sommer and Company, a company based out of Missouri. At first it was called the “Premium Soda Cracker,” due to that baking soda, and later became called “Saltines,” due to its use of baking salt. The saltine caught on brilliantly in America, and Sommer’s business eventually merged with other companies to become part of Nabisco in 1898. Now you can find Saltines in America under the brand “Premium,” by Nabisco.
Keep educating us, Wikipedia.
After the term “saltine” began to be used to refer to all crackers of this sort, Nabisco lost its trademark. In 1907, the word “saltine” was in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, defined as, ‘”a thin crisp cracker usually sprinkled with salt.”‘
And there we go. A brief history of the saltine.
So how has the saltine permeated pop culture?
Well, most restaurants serve a plastic-wrapped packet of two saltines with soup. The idea is that you crumble or dip the saltine into the soup, making it perfectly water-logged and delicious. I have fond memories of this treat from my glutenous days.
[I must include a warning here. The saltine has a hexagonal cousin, the oyster cracker. These babies are also often made by Premium, the same company that makes most saltines in the US, and are often served with soups. Do not be fooled. Oyster crackers, while similar, are a far inferior, unquadrilateral product. In other words, they need to back the fuck off the territory of the saltines - the soups of America deserve the best.]
Saltines are also often recommended to people with stomach viruses. They are extremely bland, and are very easy on the digestive system. Also, delicious, but usually only on the way down.
Additionally, there exists something called The Saltine Challenge. The goal sounds simple – eat 6 saltines in 60 seconds without drinking anything. Just six crackers? In 60 seconds? What pussy can’t do that? BUT WAIT. Saltines have a secret power, and that power is efficiently soaking up the saliva in the mouth. So, after chewing the saltines, the resultant crumbs are impossible to swallow, and many people fail. Oh, saltines, you sneaky bastards.
In conclusion, saltines are an important and valuable part of American culture. They have a proud history of feeding the sickly and soaking up the soups of our great nation. Thank you, saltines. It’s been so, so real.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, is a beautiful work of historical fiction. It is the first book of a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, an important adviser to Henry VIII of England during his reign. Unusually for historical fiction, Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize – an extremely prestigious award in the world of contemporary fiction (Mantel’s second book in the series, Bring Up the Bodies).
Wolf Hall begins chronicling Henry VIII’s reign at the beginning of the downfall of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and the rise of his second, Anne Boleyn. It chronicles Henry’s split from the Catholic church, and the threat of the protestant reformation. It also focuses on the political atmosphere of the time. There are so many different issues in play that it makes for such fascinating history. The book ends at the beginning of the fall of Anne Boleyn, after she fails to produce a male heir, and as Henry gets madder and more power hungry. Throughout, we also follow the personal life of Thomas Cromwell, a very smart and cunning man who knows how to run Henry’s court successfully.
This book is truly brilliant. The writing is fantastic – colorful and unbelievably gripping. I was thrilled that it was as long as it was, because I didn’t want it to be over. But what really makes Wolf Hall so interesting is that it paints Thomas Cromwell, a man historically depicted as a villain, in a very likable and sympathetic light. I have so much affection for the fictional Cromwell that I dread his inevitable downfall in the third book – something I know from historical context, so not a spoiler.
I highly recommend this book. It’s not gorgeous, high brow literature, perhaps – not James Joyce – but it is really fun to read, and definitely well written. The subject matter is hard to mess up, because it is so fascinating, and Mantel does a brilliant job with it.
My friend Daniel (of Manhattan Nest) is the most brilliant thrifter I’ve ever met. Now, I love my thrifting. I don’t say that easily. But he has an eye like nobody else in the world.
A couple of weeks ago, we were on the Upper West Side, and we wandered into an antiques store. In the back of the store, hidden under a cupboard and several chairs, was a filthy oriental rug. But Daniel spotted it immediately. The men in the store offered it to him first for $125, which he bargained down to $100. Then they felt bad – as the rug was very dirty, and had some tears – and offered him $45. He was ecstatic – he got a rug that he loved for dirt cheap. And it ended up beautiful, if a little worn, once he vacuumed it.
I grew up surrounded by oriental rugs. My mom loves them, and so do I. Our favorite type is Heriz, from Northwest Iran, which is an often more geometric style. The colors are so rich and beautiful, and the patterns just exquisite. However, these are not cheap when bought “new.” Of course, the best rugs are not new, per se, but old and in fantastic condition. Oriental rugs are basically put down in the streets for camels to pee on.
So, inspired by Daniel, I set out to find myself a cheap rug on ebay. I found this one for $65, including shipping. It’s a bit worn, but really very pretty. I have it in my kitchen – I apologize for the terrible lighting.
I’m kind of obsessed with our culture’s obsession with the antiseptic and over-clean. I don’t shower every day, because it’s bad for my skin and my hair. Both look much better with a little bit of oil. I’ve also read that some bacteria lives in the oils in our skin and keeps us healthy.
I also hate scented products. I love one or two sprays of my fancy, subtle, French perfume, but no more. I believe that no one should be able to smell your perfume unless they’re within kissing distance. I hate men in cologne – I’m a firm believer that Old Spice Deodorant mixed with natural man-smell is the best in the world.
Now, onto the subject of deodorants (in their rectangular packaging) and natural man-smell.
I recently read this amazing article about how deodorant and obsessive attention to smelling good became popular in the early 20th century. Before that, no one cared about smelling clean all the time. People covered up with perfume (generally fancy and French, thank you very much), but no one had been told that they had to be self-conscious about every natural smell they put out.
Cue the brilliance of the modern advertising movement. Ads were placed shaming women into insecurities about how they smell. Men came later, but soon experienced the same smell-shame that women did.
I’m going to go out on a limb here. I LIKE how men smell. For a little while, I dated a man who didn’t wear deodorant. He showered every day, so he was clean, but had a little bit of B.O. smell going on. It took some getting used to, but eventually, I really liked it. He smelled like a body. And our bodies should smell like bodies! And here is where I get back on my soap box.
Bodies are bodies. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Sex should smell like sex, not soap. People shouldn’t shower every day, compromising their health and the health of their skin and hair. Men and women shouldn’t load on perfume and cologne to cover up any natural scent that they may have. We need to reclaim the sensual power of the way we smell and taste when we’re a little bit dirty. Not saying we should embrace the gross, but a little bit of natural odor is, well, natural, and should be more acceptable. And, while I’m not ready to give up my deodorant yet, I like the idea that we could.
Clearly I’m back in school again, because I’m in class and have the time/level of boredom to continue in my blogging efforts.
Lovely Package is a website celebrating innovative and beautiful design on products. There are some truly beautiful pieces of design here, both student design pieces and true packaging that one would find on store shelves.
Here, we have a photo from Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers. I love the old-fashioned labels on here.
Here, Hardeger Huppen biscuits.
Finally, Sweet Botanicals.
My one complaint is that there are a lot of very similar aesthetic choices celebrated on here. Clearly, the people behind Lovely Package have a clear design preference and kind of limit what they feature to a very specific look. Lots of busy, folksy designs, which I’m not a huge fan of. For example:
I learned about this video my freshman year of college – almost six years ago, now – from my dear friend James. He is a connoisseur of all things hilarious and Asian, and “I Love Egg” is no exception. As soon as James found out that I love all those things, too, he shared this treasure with me. I really super wanted to embed it here, but apparently that’s impossible. So you’ll have to deal with a link, a description, and a screenshot.
This video is a bouncing, cheery song about eggs. I assume, from the lyrics, that it’s a PSA about how good eggs are for you. Or, in their words, how “popular and perfect and so complete in every way!” I love the catchy tune. I love the childish voice singing it. I love the weird eggs with faces. I love the ninjas. I love the slightly threatening “Chip a chip away your shell and COME. TO. ME.” I just love egg.
Also, guess what??!!? Apparently, there is I Love Egg merchandise. Hungry? Here’s an I Love Egg snack:
You can also get some little charm-doodles on Amazon:
Who KNOWS what else is out there!??!! Man. Life is GOOD when you love egg. Oodle doodle.
Found a video to embed. Not the best sound quality, but it does the job.
Henri Rousseau was a French painter in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He had no formal training, and his painting style was very flat, with strange light and color. There was an argument, at the time, whether Rousseau was a brilliant, avant-garde surrealist, or just a talentless hack. Over time, the argument that he was a talented visionary has won out over its more mean-spirited cousin.
I think the same argument could be made about Pop Pop’s art.
When Pop Pop retired, he became a painter. After a life spent in retail and marketing, Pop Pop wanted to explore the world through color, line, and texture instead of through dollars and cents. And, really, who could blame him? Money is so monochromatic. It’s so stark. It has none of the vibrancy of, say, a bowl of fruit. So Pop Pop painted.
His first painting was from a picture he clipped out of a magazine. The picture was of a small cabin in the woods, surrounded by trees and a field of mushrooms. In Pop Pop’s interpretation, the mushrooms are as big as the cabin. Some in my family see this as a lack of skill. I see this as a brilliant artistic choice, adding a sense of surreality to an otherwise plain painting. I wish I had a picture of this painting to show you guys, but it’s my Grandma’s favorite, and on lock down above their mantle. I’ve called dibs on it when the grandparents die. It’s the only inheritance I want.
The first painting I got from Pop Pop is a still life. It was “based” on a Cezanne, which Pop Pop clipped out of a magazine and attached to the back with masking tape. I love this painting for many reasons. First, Pop Pop quickly diverts from Cezanne’s muted colors and light. Instead, Pop Pop paints a garish turquoise background, complemented by an equally garish yellow tea towel. Pop Pop’s colors truly pop. None of this subdued, impressionist bullshit. Second, I love the fruit. Sure, you can tell what it is, but it looks rotten. Perhaps this is a visionary statement on the state of the world today? On our own perceptions of quality and value? Finally, I love Pop Pop’s broad, irreverent brush strokes. Nothing says “Fuck you, artistic conventions!” like a broad, inexact brush.
This seriously might be my favorite painting in the world. I have it hanging in my living room, and get asked if I painted it every time I have anyone over. I always have to ‘fess up that, no, this visionary masterpiece was done by my grandfather, not me.
In recent years, Pop Pop’s vision has declined to the point where he’s had to stop painting. It breaks my heart. But he still loves to take people on a tour of his “gallery” in the garage. Grandma has his art displayed all over the house – to the tune of 15-20 pictures on display throughout their two bedroom house. Pop Pop, after 87 years of a supremely practical life, has become a legitimate painter. He has his art displayed in his house. He gives it away to the kids and grandkids, so that my parents, my dad’s sisters, my brother, and I all have some Pop Pop art in our homes. And I could not be more thrilled to display these surrealist masterpieces, with the added joy of saying, “Yeah, my Pop Pop did that.”