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Toast: A Controversial Symbol of the Avant-Garde, or Just Toast?

toast with chutney

I have tried to avoid writing about toast — rather, the current “toast movement” — for as long as possible. After all, toast is not new. Bread is 30,000 years old. Spreading chutney on a slab of sourdough is not a great culinary feat. Toast was not something created by “hipsters” in San Francisco in 2013.

It is just toasted bread — in this writer’s opinion, one of the greatest simple pleasures in life. It has also been a staple menu item at diners, cafes, coffee bars, bakeries and other places where people have enjoyed essentials like coffee and bread for generations. So let’s keep some perspective as the “artisan toast” fad runs its course. Here’s a brief timeline of the recent toast craze:

  • Last year, San Francisco’s Four Barrel Coffee partnered with Josey Baker Bread to create a combined coffee shop and bakery The Mill in Portola. They served toast.
  • Last November, a grumpy columnist from Venture Beat illogically suggested that this kind of “artisan” toast is emblematic of the ruination of the middle class.
  • The toast wars ensued, with foodie blogs trumpeting it as the next big thing (even in New York!), and mainstream columnists calling it a hipster contrivance, a silly status symbol, and typical San Francisco frippery.
  • Two weeks ago, John Gravois of the Pacific Standard wrote the seminal piece on the origins of artisinal toast in coffee shop environments — a sprawling 4,000-word feature that uses toast as a metaphor for home-building and one woman’s attempt to define a sense of self and place amid a lifetime of schizophrenia and bipolarity.

The toast narrative has gotten out of control — and if it sounds too familiar, that’s because specialty coffee has been unwittingly drawn into this battle from the beginning. From Venture Beat:

Good toast and a plain cup of coffee shouldn’t cost $6. But I can’t imagine the tech community putting the brakes on this trend any time soon. We’re obsessed with false ideas of quality. We fetishize the precious processes and benchmarks and prices that, in reality, have no bearing on how good soething is.

The faulty premise here is that “a plain cup of coffee” from Four Barrel is essentially the same in quality as a plain cup of coffee from “Any Diner USA.” It’s like saying a slice of Wonder Bread is essentially the same in quality as a thick cut of fresh, scratch-made caraway rye from a local independent baker. They both have their place, but come on, man.

So maybe toast isn’t just toast, in the same way coffee isn’t just coffee. Maybe its narrative is symbolic, convoluted and important. Or maybe it’s just toast.

Comment

3 Comments

Bryan

After watching a hipster transplant from San Fransisco move to small town Oregon and open a toast bar, I can only laugh. I’ve never witnessed a business go down in flames quite like that. It was, however, entertaining watching the owner spread sheep’s cheese on toast with the focus and intensity of a barista in the heat of a latte art competition.

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