“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…
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.