Dry Toast for the Bourgeoisie
Or, decorative items for gracious living
My husband wants a brûlée torch, and I tell him no—we don’t have room in our tiny bungalow for things we’ll never use. Every square inch of kitchen real estate has already been optimized with pegboards, shelves, cupboards, crocks.
My dad texts to ask if I want one of grandma’s old wedding presents—a hammered aluminum lazy susan topped with fussy little jam jars and ribbed glass butter dishes, with a four-slot rack for slices of bread. “It is called a “toast set,’” he says.
“Sure,” I send back immediately. “I love it.”
My grandma died over a year ago, but her stuff is all around me. A book of vintage postcards from national parks. A brace of gilt-edged pie servers painted with colonial lads tooting colonial flutes. A hand-whittled wooden man with a spring-loaded, oversized dong.
And now: a toast set.
I wish I could say I wanted it for sentimental reasons, but I doubt my grandmother ever used it. She hated cooking and used her oven so infrequently, she stored loaves of Wonderbread and bags of potato chips inside of it.
Instead, the toast set was just another piece of midcentury “giftware,” a class of items that existed to be given as wedding presents and immediately resigned to the impossible-to-reach cabinet above the fridge.
Giftware is, by and large, a burden—a set of unrealistic expectations manifest in etched glass and tulip finials. If you’re lucky enough to stumble upon an old Marshall Field’s catalogue, a lot of the items will probably seem like punchlines. Who could possibly need a “lemon fork,” let alone a “mayonnaise bowl”? No one, then and now. The grift was selling couples a grandiloquent vision of domestic life to which they could never measure up. (Unless, of course, they bought the right stuff).
The toast set’s very existence seems combative. Really? it sneers. You’re going to just put that jar of marmalade on the *table*, like a moose? You don’t love your family enough to decant your cream cheese into a swan boat and lattice lox onto a matching tray?
My generation has mostly rejected “bridge club hospitality,” with its snack affectations and competitive cruet-ry. Still, I can’t help but feel drawn to these dainty little objects, like mayonnaise to a bowl. I like hyperbolic specificity; I love a burlesque.
(I also can’t help but admire the stones of the not-so-Silent Generation for lecturing us about the extravagance of avocado toast while they had black-tie toast sets stashed in their cupboards).
So I called up my friends Ryan and Carrie, who are always willing to commit to a bit, and invited them over for a Fancy Toast Party. I bought a bottle of Champagne with a capital C (for toasts) and an enriched loaf of “Bimbo” brand white bread (for toasts). The Bimbo turned out to be a little too enriched, and I had to mash the toast slices to fit them in the slender prongs of the rack. I tried to spin this as a selling point.
“Messeurs-dames,” I assured Ryan and Carrie, “the bread has been hand-squeezed.”
Here is a photo of us all looking very cultured and officious. I am sorry I do not own a proper bow tie:
After the party, I did some research on my new heirloom and developed a new appreciation for collectors and the amount of history they preserve. I only know where my “toast set” came from—and that it’s not, in fact, called a “toast set” but a “revolving hostess susan”—thanks to an old advertisement procured and published by a collector of the style, which was sold as “Creations by Rodney Kent”:
As it turned out, Rodney Kent had many Creations. My favorite from the ad is the “Silent Butler,” a mysterious artifact described only as “a decorative item for gracious living.”1 It has a vaguely threatening aura, one I long to achieve.
I do think the history of this stuff is worth preserving. There’s a reason companies tried to make high-end giftware out of aluminum and a reason they failed. There’s a context in which something like a toast set once made sense—however fleeting, however cynical.
But at the end of the day, they’re also just mass-produced consumer goods, designed not by an artist with a point of view but by a sales executive glancing out of his office window at the intersection of Rodney and Kent Streets, searching for a name that might help him guilt a few newlyweds (or their wedding guests) into buying shit they don’t need.2
Where is there room in my house for these things? I’m still not sure. But I know I’m always going to make room in my life for good-natured comedic frippery. After the initial Toast Party, I brought the set to another friend’s house to introduce it to a new audience.
Maybe that’s the way to handle the bits of history we can’t quite connect with: not by storing them in a basement, gathering dust, but by moving them from house to house like a traveling performer, making them novel, taking them for a literal spin. If you live in KC and would like to throw a toast party of your own, email me—I’ll bring it by.
Objects should be used. I didn’t say “useful.” There’s too much baggage with that word.
But I happen to think there’s a fair amount of utility in making people smile—at minimum, in giving them a good story.
FYI: I’m writing something new!
I’ve picked up a new monthly column for Midwesterner. It’s called “Tasteless,” and I think Haterade readers will enjoy it. My first one is out now, covering the confused symbolism (and unsavory savoriness) of the hot beef sundae. Read it here!
In actuality, the “silent butler” was a sort of covered dust pan scenario used to whisk away table crumbs or cigarette ashes…graciously.