Lara Rutherford-Morrison has a PhD in Victorian literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is currently an Affiliated Scholar at Concordia University in Montreal and blogs daily for Bustle. Her research considers the ways that contemporary culture reimagines and plays with Victorian literature and history, in contexts ranging from adaptations of Victorian novels in film and fiction to heritage tourism in the U.K. She can be found at her website and on Twitter @LaraRMorrison.
Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, the quintessential guide to practically every aspect of Victorian homemaking, is a fascinating work, but one that poses certain challenges to the contemporary home cook. Some of Mrs. Beeton’s favorite ingredients have fallen out of favor with modern audiences (She has an awful lot of recipes involving whole calves’ heads, for example), and many of her instructions are baffling (As a previous contributor to JVC Online asked, how on Earth does one actually measure “the weight of seven eggs in flour”?). For this post, I have tapped a subset of Mrs. Beeton’s recipes that require no special ingredients or historical cooking expertise whatsoever: Recipes involving toast.
Toast may be the trendy “new” thing in areas like San Francisco, where hoards of people line up at bakeries to pay $4 for single slices of artisanal toast, but Mrs. Beeton shows us that the art of toasting bread is an old, honored tradition that practically anyone can manage (I know, because I was able to do it). There are a number of toasty recipes in Mrs. Beeton’s, including “Dry Toast,” “Hot Buttered Toast,” “Toast Sandwiches,” and “Toast-and-Water.” Mrs. Beeton instructs cooks in how to toast bread over an open flame; however, as I lack a gas cooking range, I had to make do with my oven’s broiler. Not to be deterred by this minor limitation, on a recent Sunday afternoon, I bought myself a loaf of bread and set to toasting. I soon learned that, even with such few and humble ingredients as bread, butter, and water, you can make some very, very strange food.
The Toast Sandwich, AKA The Cheapest Meal In England.
In 2011, the Royal Society of Chemistry declared the toast sandwich to be the cheapest meal in England, at 7.5 pence per sandwich. This thrifty delicacy is exactly what it sounds like: A piece of dry toast sandwiched between two slices of buttered bread, with a bit of salt and pepper to taste. Mrs. Beeton suggests that one can also add “a little pulled meat,” and that, in any variation, the toast sandwich “will be found very tempting to the appetite of an invalid” . I would argue that the toast sandwich would tempt even the healthiest of constitutions: It is quite tasty, which is no surprise given the fact that it is composed entirely of bread and butter.
If I may offer two pieces of advice for the contemporary toast sandwich maker, it’s that you cut the bread very thinly, as Mrs. Beeton suggests, and toast it until quite crisp. The first measure prevents the sandwich from being a giant, boring block of bread, and the second gives the it the variation in texture necessary for you to convince yourself that you’re eating a sandwich and not merely a quarter of a loaf of bread.
Although the Royal Society of Chemistry put the price of the toast sandwich at 7.5 pence, my own came out somewhat more expensively at approximately .86 Canadian dollars per sandwich (the equivalent of about .42 GBP). I’ll admit, however, that I invested some extra cash in very good bread from my local bakery. As my more expensive version of the dish still came out to less than a buck, I would argue that the extra pennies are a worthwhile splurge.
Toast Water: The Toast Trend Meets The Water Craze
When I came across Mrs. Beeton’s recipe for toast-and-water, my first thought was “Eww.” The recipe calls for the home cook to toast a crusty slice of stale bread, pour a quart of boiling water over it, and let it sit. When the water is cool, strain out the soaked bread, et voila! Toast Water. This recipe came out much better than I expected, but, as I expected it to be utterly inedible, that’s not saying a lot. When I first read through the recipe, I envisioned the final product to be a cloudy, lumpy, sludgy mess, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that, once strained, my toast and water was only slightly cloudy, with a pale golden colour, no lumps in sight.
It’s important to note that, like revenge, toast water is best served cold. Mrs. Beeton emphasizes more than once the importance of making it well in advance of serving, so that it can grow quite cold. She warns, “[I]f drunk in a tepid or lukewarm state, it is an exceedingly disagreeable beverage” . Having tried it, I agree that it warm toast water would be awful. When preparing mine, I took advantage of modern technology and chilled it in the refrigerator for a few hours.
My chilled toast water had a marked bready aroma. The taste was strange: When it first hit the tongue, it tasted simply like cold water, but, upon swallowing, an intense toast flavor emerged. Prior to this experiment, I hadn’t realized that the flavor of toast — without the toast itself — was transferable to liquid, as it apparently is. The flavor of the beverage is really quite uncanny, as it tastes exactly like toast, but without the crunch or … solidity of actual bread. Every time I took a sip, I felt like my brain stuttered for a moment, trying to reconcile the flavor of something inherently crunchy with the texture of cold water. Each swallow was accompanied by a mild sense of bewilderment, and, although it didn’t taste bad, I haven’t yet decided if toast water actually tastes good.
Mrs. Beeton recommends toast-and-water as a beverage to tempt those in very delicate health, but I think it has potentially lucrative applications in our modern world. In the U.S., there is a major fad for “waters” that aren’t actually water: the shelves of Whole Foods are lined with such inexplicable delicacies as coconut water, maple water, Vitamin Water, cactus water, artichoke water, and Smart water. “Cleanses,” in which people eschew solid food altogether in favor of juice or other liquids, have also become enormously popular.
I think it’s nearly inevitable that Toast Water will be the next major fad in liquid dieting — After all, what could be better than water that tastes like bread, without all those pesky crumbs? Thus, I’m using this post to announce the launch of my new company:
MRS. BEETON’S NON-FAT, ALL LIQUID VICTORIAN DELICACIES.
Because there’s no diet like that of a 19th-century invalid!
As we’ve already established, toast is very inexpensive (The Royal Society of Chemistry may insist that the toast sandwich is the cheapest meal in England, but I would wager that toast-and-water is even less costly, given that it requires only a single piece of stale bread), so the profit margins will be huge when I sell vintage-y glass bottles of the concoction for 12 dollars a pop at fancy grocery stores. After the market goes wild for Toast Water, my sure-to-be-billion-dollar company will release further Victorian treats for invalids, including artisanal eel broth and egg wine.
Who knew Mrs. Beeton was so trendy?
 Isabella Beeton, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). Project Gutenberg ebook.
 This is a very rough calculation, based on the cost of a fifth of a loaf of bread (a generous estimation) and just over a tablespoon of butter.
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