Guest Post: The Taste of Toast

Perfectly toasted, non-artisanal, not sustainable, bread and butter photo courtesy of Amanda. 

Perfectly toasted, non-artisanal, not sustainable, bread and butter photo courtesy of Amanda. 

For $4, you too can now be an authority on toast. You think you know toast? Well, you haven't yet had "artisanal" toast. I know this because D.C. is opening its first artisanal "toast bar" this year, and unless you've been to the ones in San Francisco, you have some learning ahead of you!

This is great news for all the people in this city who have been looking for another simple, pedestrian item to make high-class. It’s not a bakery; it’s a toastery. And this one is careful to point out that it bakes its bread in house, which, as one friend commented, is really the bare minimum of what they should be doing. They won't be offering sandwiches, but it's good to know they won't be charging just for use of their toasters.

I’m hardly the first person to be disdainful of this new trend. When it first began in, predictably, San Francisco, it drew its share of righteous criticism. Bethany Jean Clement of the Stranger remarked that $4 toast in San Francisco had “become a symbol for the city’s rampant nouveau riche and everything that is wrong with them.” And as Hannah Goldfield said in the New Yorker, the trend “represents our intensifying obsession with and fetishization of food.”

The problem isn’t that people like toast. In fact, the origin of the trend is a fascinating and touching story, chronicled by John Gravois in Pacific Standard and then on This American Life. Gravois wrote about San Francisco’s first toast café, called Trouble, which was opened by a woman named Giulietta Carrelli as a way for her to reconnect with herself while coping with episodes of schizoaffective disorder. She wasn’t trying to start a trend, or take advantage of rich people needing to feel superior about another food item. But rarely can something both quirky and successful stay simple and unique, and toast soon became the new It food. And, typically, Washington, D.C., is tonelessly glomming onto this trend for no other stated reason than that “it was successful in San Francisco.” Carrelli’s café offers guests something wholly original; the D.C. owners, no doubt talented bakers, are offering guests, well, toast.

Some things are better when you don't make them fancy or "artisan." Toast is one of those things. It has not been neglected as a food staple; it has not been begging to be taken seriously. Toast—and this is about as serious as I can get about its merits as a food—is a perfectly fine way to eat bread. And if you can make toast with really good bread, you might even say that your slice of toast tastes really good. But that's about it. Toast doesn't need to be saved. The act of using a toaster doesn't need to be commodified. Toast doesn't have to be one more food item that now exists on a spectrum of taste, used to judge the consumers themselves.

But D.C. is a weird place. There are many things I love about it, but its inferiority complex is not one of them. It's a cosmopolitan city, and however uncool its residents are thought to be, they (or at least, the residents defining trends, opening stores, and being written about—a whole host of people don’t give a damn about toast bars, or this article) do know what's going on elsewhere. They know which trends are starting in the "hip" places and they desperately want D.C. to be in on the action. The city is susceptible to crazes, and its favorites are the ones that can be accessed with upper-middle class incomes. For instance, vintage in D.C. is half as good as in the Midwest, but nearly twice as expensive. Supply and demand is certainly a factor, but that isn’t the whole story. There are vintage customers in D.C. who can afford to spend more, and they will. It’s not about the merits of the item (or the food); it’s about the need to have a vintage item (or try the new food craze) at any cost.

D.C. residents (or New York and San Francisco residents, for that matter) don't have inherently or biologically better "taste" than people in, say, El Paso or Cleveland. D.C. palates aren’t wired to like kale more than Detroit palates, although D.C. might buy a lot more of it. If they opened an artisanal toast bar in Detroit (not one like Carrelli’s), I’m sure many would laugh. It’s not because Detroiters don't like good bread, or because they have some unique authenticity that makes them impervious to trends. There's just not as much of a culture there (yet, perhaps) of putting everything on a continuum of bad taste to good taste. But in D.C., that ability, that confidence to have opinions of taste for everything, is priceless, and you can get people to listen to you and repeat your proclamations if they trust you and want people to think they have taste, too.

And now, toast can be one more thing people have opinions about. Much has been written in an attempt to define “hipsterdom,” but perhaps the most compelling I’ve read was Mark Greif’s piece in the New York Times. Drawing upon the writings of the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Greif discusses “taste” as being the primary currency of hipsterdom. Bourdieu wrote that the illusion of “superior taste” is a tool used by the upper class to provide justification for their privileged position. Hipsters, often on the frontline of trends and taste before the mainstream catches on, all “play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties.” One category in particular, Greif adds, comprises those “who, possessed of money but not the nose for culture, convert real capital into ‘cultural capital.’” D.C. didn’t invent the $4 toast trend, but they can certainly put a price on it, make it another trapping of class, and sell it—and you had best get in on it now so you’re in time to say it’s “over” when it finally goes the way of the cupcake.

Money itself doesn’t change your palate. What it does is allow you to try more things. It gives you the option of trying a five-star Indian  restaurant but then say that you really preferred the naan your host mother made while on your cultural tourism vacation in Punjab because that was just so authentic. You’ll eat a slice of this multigrain toast, and say it reminds you of the bread you made at the gîte in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence—so close to the real thing!

Because really, no one will actually be able to tell if it's that good or not. In a blind taste test between the $4 slice of toast and a supermarket bakery loaf, they won't know. The customers didn't study the art of artisanal bread-making in Provence. But they'll know—they’ll know—it's really good, and they'll rave about how good it is, because, after all, it was $4 a slice. It’s the same way they know those twelve cookies from Dean & Deluca are really good because it cost $45 to bring them to the dinner party in that pretty white bag. The same way they know that dress with the tear and the coffee stain on the front is really good vintage because it cost a ludicrous $60 "as is."

You don't have to have your own taste, but if you have the money, you can certainly buy it. And then you, too, can control the spectrum of “taste.” Why not try it with toast?