Thursday, February 19, 2009

"London Times - Part Seven"

“That’s the best thing since sliced bread.”

I never got the sense of exactly what that meant, not having been born in 1910. It appeared, however, that people were so excited by this technological advancement that sliced bread became the measuring stick for all the technical innovations that followed.

“Seedless watermelon is good. But it’s no sliced bread.”

I grew up with slice bread. I take it for granted. You open the package, and there are the slices, lined up side-by-side, every slice the same size and thickness. Who knew that one day, the idea of sliced bread would bring a nostalgic tear to my eye Certainly not your humble reporter.

I had become accustomed to the fact the England of the late Nineteen Sixties was, if not a Third World country, at least a country with a higher number than I country I’d been brought up in. Many of the amenities were considerably less than state-of-the-art. The heating. The plumbing. The phone system. And, as I was about to discover…

The bread.

Hampstead, where I lived, was like a little village. It may have actually been a village. I didn’t grow up with villages, so I wouldn’t know for sure. There was this place in Toronto called Forest Hill Village, but I don’t think it was ever a actual village. It was just an area. A village is, or at least was at one point, a distinct geographical entity. Hampstead easily could have been. Forest Hill Village? Well, maybe. A village on a hill in a forest. It’s possible, I suppose. Once. A long time ag…

Somebody, please – stop me for musing!

Among its small grocery markets, fishmongers and butcher shops, Hampstead’s main drag, Heath Street, included two terrific bakeries. One was called Louis. The other was called, I’m going to give this spelling a try but don’t hold me to it – Grodzinskis. The two were very similar, both bakeries offering mouth-watering pastries and baked goods. One of them was easier to spell.

Neither of them sold sliced bread.

I remember ordering my first fresh rye bread with caraway seeds at Grodzinskis.

“Could you slice that for me, please?” I requested.

“We don’t do that, Dear,” came the smiling reply.

I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. In this place, you sliced your own bread.

(Could I have purchased a loaf of (the English version of) Wonder Bread at the market? Sure. But, you know…ew. I mean, I had surrendered to dinnering on canned meatballs from a tin, but you have to draw the line somewhere.)

The price of my Bedsitting Room included what they called “kitchen privileges.” My single room was without a kitchen. You had to cook somewhere. So the landlady, Mrs. Tompkins, allowed me to use hers.

I wasn’t much of a cook. I ate out – at a nearby Greek restaurant where my hunger forced me for the first time in m life to consume peas – and a Chinese restaurant run by Pakistanis. Don’t ask. When you’re hungry and the opposite of wealthy, you lower your standards. Maybe eliminate them completely.

My breakfast was cold cereal, tea and toast. In my case, toast made from Grodzinskis super-fresh, moist and tasty rye bread with seeds. My mouth waters at the thought of it, as it often did then. You didn’t even have to put anything on it. You could enjoy it “as is”, or toast it up.

But first, you had to slice it.


I get out the bread knife. I stand directly over the bread, which I’ve placed atop an old, wooden table. I start sawing a slice from the end of the loaf, making every effort to cut straight down. (INSERT BREAD-SAWING SOUND HERE.) Finally, I feel the knife edge scrape along the table. I had sawed my way through. I had carved off a slice of bread.

I look down at my handiwork. I have not made a straight slice. Not even close. The top edge – or the bottom edge if you turn the slice over – the edge from which I had started my slicing, is pretty much the normal width of a slice of bread. The bottom edge appears to be three to four times wider.

I had carved myself a widening slice of bread, normal-sized on one edge, and increasing in broadness on its way to the other. Artistically interesting, perhaps. But I’d have a devil of a time fitting it into the toaster.

There is only one thing to do. I set my slice on the table, the narrow side away from me, and with all the weight in my body, I press down heavily on the wider side, hoping to flatten it enough for my misshapen slice of bread to fit into the toaster. And more importantly, when the toasting was completed, my delicious slice of rye would be able to pop right up.

So there I was, standing on my tiptoes, pressing the corpulent edge of my bread into the tabletop with every ounce of energy I could muster.

At this point, Mrs. Tompkins’, eight year-old son, Willy, walks into the kitchen.

“What are you doing?” he inquires.

“I’m making toast.”

Apparently, Willy had never experienced this method of toast making before, and he was understandably intrigued. He was also interested, as it turned out, in my Grodzinskis rye with caraway seeds, a type of bread he had never tasted, as his mother, a Scottish lady who counted her pennies, had raised him exclusively on the processed variety.

Being a generous sort, and wishing to distract him from the embarrassment of my bread-slice squashing, I offer to make Willy a piece of rye toast as well.

This, of course, would involve a second round of slicing.

I did considerably better the second time; the thicker end required only minor compressing. I then inserted both slices in the toaster, my slice requiring considerably more effort, then pulled the thing you pull down, down.

Bouncing with anticipation, we stand over the toaster, peering inside every five or six seconds to check on the progress. Our eyes widen with excitement, as we discover the bread, gradually browning. It wouldn’t be long now. Very shortly, Willy and I would be feasting on toastily delicious seeded rye.

Finally, we hear the telltale metallic toaster click. That was the signal. Our toast was ready. Willy’s slice pops right up. Well, not all the way, but half. Extrication would not be a problem.

Not so with my slice, which doesn’t pop at all. It just sits there, immobilized, singed around the edges, at the bottom of the toaster.

Smoke begins rising from my stuck bagel's slot, as the room fills with the unmistakable odor of burnt toast. We had an emergency on our hands. Not a serious one from a fire standpoint, but one that could easily get you thrown out of your Bedsitting Room.

I grab the bread knife, and plunge it into the offending slot in the toaster (I don’t remember if I took the plug out first; I probably didn’t; I’m not at my best in emergencies.) I struggle to pierce the bread with the bread knife, hoping, thusly, to hoist the bread manually out of the toaster.

But it was no good. The bread was wedged in there too tightly. As it became increasingly cracker-like from the declining but still elevated toaster temperature, my continuing puncturing and hoisting efforts caused the slice to break apart, shattering into independent fragments of bread and crust.

I try to stab individual fragments, hoping to liberate them out one at a time. But since they were tightly ensconced, my upward flicking motions send pieces of blackened toast erupting out of the toaster and flying around the room.

I continue to work feverishly. Thoughts of enjoying some Grodzinskis toasted rye are now a distant memory. I simply wanted to stop the burnt toast smell and its accompanying smoke. Which meant extricating the bread from the toaster. Which meant continuing to poke around in there with the bread knife. Which inevitably led to more toast fragments soaring into the air.

That’s when Mrs. Tompkins came in.

“What are you doing?” she cried.

“We’re making toast!” replied Willy, excitedly.


You know when you’re really worried about something, but the real problem turns out to be something completely different? That’s exactly what happened. It turns out Mrs. Tompkins was less upset by my toast-making debacle than that I had introduced her Willy Boy a better quality of bread. This disturbed her immensely. Why?

“He’ll be wanting it all the time now.”

Fortunately, her unhappiness did not rise to “eviction” level. Though later, when I finally was evicted, I am pretty sure that it played a part.

I’d like to say I eventually became more skillful in this business, but that would be fiction. I remained about the same. What changed immensely was my appreciation of the saying, “That’s the best thing since sliced bread.”

I am not convinced that they’ve topped it yet.


Anonymous said...

..And now for the Senior Try: Cut a pie in 8 even pieces. hahaha

And keep musing!
People don't do that enough on the internet.


A. Buck Short said...

This is precisely why London became famous for its toaster sweeps, basically soot-covered aspiring chimney sweeps in top hats, but with shorter stepladders and acrophobia.

I hope this won't bore you, but in related slicing developments,two days ago I’m at the supermarket deli counter requesting a half pound block of Havarti with dill, because I have discovered that cheese sliced from a gynormous block at the deli counter is almost half the price of what you pay when you get it packaged in the pluck-it-out-yourself case. I determined this using consecutive simple quadratic equations – the only algebraic formula I have ever needed since high school. If a half lb. of prepackage Havarti is $7.43, and that sliced by the deli guy is $8.99 lb., then the prepackaged is selling for $14.86 lb., which is 65% more than the deli guy charges. (I realize the savings were already obvious, but something in me insists upon knowing exactly how much – which considerably extends ones time in the market, especially if you also have trouble determining where they are hiding the Lenders frozen bagels in any particular week.)

So I order the half pound, making certain the deli guy knows I want it in a block, like you require for cubing on crackers, rather than sliced as for sandwiches. I immediately begin pondering how he’ll know what’s approximately a half pound to lop off? If you’re slicing, you can simply allow the slices to pile up on the scale incrementally, until you pretty much hit it right on the mark. But blocks, literally and figuratively tend to be a bit more dicey. So he slices off a reasonable estimate, realizes it’s almost a pound, puts that aside, chalks it up to experience, and then gets it pretty much right on the second try.

I then ask if he ever thought of using a quadratic equation, which I seem to find handy more than one would suspect. You take the length of the entire block of cheese and then weigh it. This will allow you to determine how many inches, or fractions thereof sliced off would amount to a pound, and from there it’s just a short trip to a half pound.

The deli man asks if I’m a math teacher. I ask why. He says, “Because I’m a math teacher.”

Finally, for many additional hours of enjoyment, I invite you to visit the Google-image and enter "bagel slicer." You will find more than 30 pages of different models of bagel slicing devices from the primitive and rustic wooden variety to the state of the art sort that must come with an instruction manual in at least three languages. One would have thought these were primarily a matter of convenience, but from the blurbs touting each, apparently our hospital emergency rooms are highly congested performing triage on hoards with various bagel slicing injuries.

You’ll find the Pinwood 1999, simplicity itself, essentially a high rise mitre box; the Vermont Bowl Co’s. trademarked Bagel Hugger (“There are other bagel slicers on the market, but they simply don't hold every size of bagel securely so that it doesn't roll around when you try to cut it. Some of them still put your fingers in harm’s way with exposure to the knife blade.”); for the French chef, the formidable Mandolin (“The guillotine-action blade safely slices the bagels behind the...”); the fully electrified, industrial strength Bagel Pro; all the way up to the Duchess Bakers Model 270, that apparently not only slices many many bagels per minute, but is also capable of launching rocket propelled grenades. One demonstrates how you cannot only cut a circular object precisely in half, but into four thin slices. Why one would have occassion to cut a bagel into four thin slices is, to me, as imponderable as why I would want tomato slices as wafer thin as the knife sellers demonstrate in their informercials. Are you really getting more out of your tomato that way?

Corinne said...

The bread knifes with fancy guides never work properly for consistency either. It takes much trial, error, and practice.

I discovered when I started making homemade bread that the sides of the pan flare slightly out. My dear husband with make the first cut so that it is parallel to the crust. This throws off the whole loaf. I, on the other hand, carefully make the first cur perpendicular to the cutting board. The crust piece keeps it's job of keeping the loaf moist. It doesn't matter if it's a wee bit 'off'.

All this becasue I'm home sick but couldn't ignore the greatness of the verification word:

talecons- another word for fiction. The genre of movies favoured at Comic Con.

I'm sure Ken Levine's readers would come up with something far more amusing but the migraine has me beat, I'm afraid.

Brian Phillips said...

There was a radio series on BBC2 called "Genius", hosted by Dave Gorman. People wrote in with their invention ideas and the people they selected would appear and they would bring their inventions.

Someone came up with the idea of perforated bread. Tear along the desired thickness. It actually worked!

It was the best thing since sliced bread