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Toast Has Been A Fad For 150 Years

This is The Digest, a new FiveThirtyEight fixture exploring the science, history and economics of food. We’re still working out the essential ingredients to make this just right — we welcome your feedback and suggestions! You can email me or leave a note in the comments. Now, on to this week’s four-course meal …

From the cavities

I love toast, and I eat it almost every day. But on a recent trip to the bookstore, I found not one, but two cookbooks about toast on display. This has to stop. Sure, I might eventually buy both of those books, and I’m happy for toast to be appreciated for the elegant vehicle that it is. But, really, toast must stop being a thing.1 There is nothing new about toast!

Which is why I was smugly delighted to find evidence that some of the country’s finest hotels were serving ornate ingredients atop bread that had been exposed to radiant heat at least as far back as the 1850s.

For the past five years, the New York Public Library has been hard at work on a big project: digitizing and transcribing its menu collection. The archive consists of 45,000 menus from the 1840s to the present (from New York and elsewhere), and 17,545 of those have been digitized.2 A congregation of food- and archive-loving volunteers have transcribed more than 1.3 million dishes off of them (you can help!).

I poked through the archive to see what I could find about the availability of fancy toast over time. The earliest appearance in the collection is on a menu from the Parker House in Boston, which offered anchovy toast back in 1858.

Today we favor avocado, but small birds were once a topping of choice. Of the 3,326 menus in the collection from the year 1900, 31 featured broiled squab, aka baby pigeon, on toast. And then there’s the ever-elegant milk toast, toast either soaked in or topped with a milk and sugar sauce; it was featured on 676 menus from the 1850s through the 1960s (that’s roughly 4 percent of the menus collected from that time period).

Playing with your food

The run-up to Easter weekend seemed like the perfect time to redo one of the first food experiments/activities I ever tried, one that helps you understand what kind of taster you are. It involves food coloring, which I figured would be abundantly available for egg dyeing. I went to the baking aisle of my local grocery store — food coloring is always next to the frosting — but all I found was oddly colored gel packs. So I went to the seasonal aisle, in search of egg dyeing kits, but all it had were egg-sized shrink-wrap outfits and stick-on mustaches. (If anyone has data on the rise and fall of food coloring, here’s my email address.)

Several calls to grocery stores in neighboring towns later, the experiment was back on. I originally tried it while reading a book called “Taste” by Barb Stuckey. Stuckey is a professional food developer (meaning she develops foods and recipes for chain restaurants and retail food companies) who isn’t afraid to admit that there was a time when she didn’t know what mouthfeel was. Stuckey’s thesis is that by learning the science and vocabulary around taste, we can learn to enjoy food more — much the way that enjoying the nuances of wine takes some training. Early in the book, she describes an activity that helps determine how acute one’s sense of taste is by calculating the density of taste buds.

Tools:

  • Hole reinforcement stickers, like the kind kids used to put on three-hole-punch notebook paper to make sure it wouldn’t rip out of their three-ring binder. (People born after 1990, ask an older friend what I’m talking about. Or just watch this.)
  • Three to five paper towels
  • Blue food coloring
  • A magnifying glass
  • Strongly recommended: an accomplice to help you count

Dry your tongue with a paper towel, and leave it hanging out so it stays dry. Put blue food coloring on a paper towel or swab, and dab it on your tongue. Allow it to dry, and then put one of the stickers on your tongue. Use the magnifying glass to count the number of taste buds.

Researchers loosely categorize people as non-tasters, tasters and supertasters according to the density of their taste buds:

  • Non-tasters: 15 or fewer buds
  • Tasters: 16 to 39 buds
  • Supertasters: 40 or more buds

It turns out that I’m a supertaster, like some 25 percent to 30 percent of the population, according to researchers Stuckey spoke to (40 percent to 50 percent of the population is tasters, and the rest are non-tasters). But Stuckey makes a strong argument against using this terminology, especially supertaster. She doesn’t like that it implies superiority, when more isn’t always a good thing. A hypertaster — Stuckey’s preferred term — tends to be very sensitive to taste, which can make bitter and sour foods unpleasant. Also, the density of taste buds is only one small part of how people experience taste — people vary in their sensitivity to different kinds of bitter compounds, as well as their sense of smell, two of the many things that influence what we ultimately experience as flavor.

Ins and outs

This week in food poisoning news …

By March 24, a shake powder made by Garden of Life had infected 27 people in 20 states with salmonella virchow. The number of sick people is likely to increase — it takes two to four weeks to confirm a case of salmonella, so the 27 may not include people who got sick after Feb. 28, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But as Food Safety News noted, what’s rare about this recall is that the company is rebranding the shake amid the outbreak. The product formerly known as “RAW Meal” is now called “Raw Organic Meal.” While the CDC is telling retailers to take the shake off the shelves, Garden of Life is ushering a newly branded version on to them.

Amusing bouche

Footnotes

  1. There’s ample evidence that toast is indeed a thing. Eater called avocado toast a top food trend of 2015 (it used DATA to prove it!). Toast determined the fate of some “Top Chef” contestants in a recent episode. This beautiful story in Pacific Standard predicted its rise back in 2014.

  2. At present, the library is working on a comprehensive effort to digitize the whole of its collection, not just menus, according to Shana Kimball, manager of public programs and outreach for the NYPL Labs, an interdisciplinary team working to bring the library’s collection into the digital age. Much to the dismay of many volunteer transcribers, there are no current plans to digitize the rest of the menus in the collection.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester reports on public health, food and culture for FiveThirtyEight.

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