Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Toast as Medicine.

There are those who love toast for the simple pleasure of it – for its inherent toastiness and its butter-absorbing, marmalade (or honey, or Vegemite)-carrying, and soup-accompanying capacity. Then there are those who eat it or inflict it because it is (when correctly prepared of course) - good for you.

In the latter group were many medical and nursing and dietetic persons of the nineteenth century, amongst whom we must include the miserable human who invented the abomination that we met on Monday – that ‘best and healthiest’ beverage called ‘toast and water’.

There was a great prejudice against fresh, hot bread at that time. Here is a snippet, complete with clinical case vignettes, from one of the Lectures on Digestion and Diet, by CharlesTurner Thackrath (Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of London, and of the Societe de Medecin-Pratique de Paris), 1824.

"Substances, which from their texture or consistence are but imperfectly pervaded by the gastric juice, must be difficult of digestion. Hence new Bread is particularly objectionable. Two soldiers (mentioned by Schmucker) who had eaten immoderately of fresh-baked bread, complained of great uneasiness at the stomach. To this, vomiting succeeded; the abdomen became hard and tumid, the pulse sank; and death was the speedy result. On examination, “the intestines,” says Schmucker, “were found extremely distended with air, and singularly contorted."

The writer goes on to give a story from close to home, which seems to suggest that butter is also a breakfast culprit:

"Two members of my family, were annoyed with disorder of the stomach after breakfast. One in particular was uneasy, depressed, and irritable during most of the forenoon. Plain bread, or Toast, was substituted for buttered Toast, and the disorder was removed in the one case, and materially removed in the other."

Often, in American books of this era on dietetics and health, the preferred bread for medicinal toast was zwieback .The name means twice-cooked, and the bread was intended for long-keeping. Was this an extra precaution against the ‘indigestibility’ of fresh bread? Or is there something that I cannot fathom (not having tried it) about zwieback?

Of course, one could, if one wished, throw caution to the wind, and modify the health properties of this twice-baked, once-toasted bread by the heavy application of cream, as in the following ‘recipe’ from Good Food How to Prepare It - The Principles of Cooking, by George E. Cornforth (1920).

Cream Toast.
Put a slice of zwieback into a cereal bowl. Pour over it one-half cup of hot cream, and serve at once.

And from the same book, the following idea – from the section on Fruit Toasts.

Pear Toast.
Pear sauce for toast may be made from either canned pears of stewed fresh pears. Cut the pears in thin slices. Measure the juice, heat it to boiling, and thicken it with cornstarch stirred smooth with a little cold water, using one tablespoon cornstarch for each cup of juice. Use a batter whip to stir the starch and cold water together, then whip the boiling juice with the batter whip while the cornstarch is poured in a small stream into it. Put the sliced pears into the thickened juice and allow the whole to remain over the stove long enough to heat the pears.

Quotation for the Day.

Toast was a big item in my mother's culinary pharmacopeia. At first it was served plain and dry, but that was soon followed by crisp, sweet cinnamon toast, the baby-bland toast that tasted soothingly of fresh air. Thick slices of French toast, crisp and golden outside but moist and eggy within, would probably come next, always topped with a melting knob of sweet butter and a dusting of confectioner's sugar. I knew I was close to recovery when i got the toast I liked best - almost-burned rye bread toast covered with salt butter.
Mimi Sheraton.

Image is of a toast rack, circa 1851


peregrine said...


I've just discovered The Old Foodie recently while looking for old potato recipes for my sister, The Maine Potato Lady ( I love your combination of stories, history, and recipes. Fun!

As a toast-lover (and bread baker) I am particularly enjoying your "toast posts." To my mind, toast exists as a vehicle for butter and honey. During the autumn, I also enjoy hot buttered homemade toast smothered with HOT homemade applesauce. Read my applesauce thoughts here:

It's odd that zweiback seems often to be spelled two ways, with IE or EI. The German word for "two" is "zwei" so it seems that "zweiback" is probably correct-er. :-)

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Sarah. I hope you found the Fun with Potatoes archive (the link is in the sidebar); I havent had applesauce on toast, but it sounds good.