Recently we decided at our house that we needed a new toaster so we set off to the nearest appliance store only to discover there an astonishing array of models.
Some were imposingly hefty and cost well over $100. Some bore digital displays, others special defrost features, and still others individual settings for pastries and bagels. At least one model, the one we ended up buying, was a pop-up toaster in reverse. Bread slides down through it and is deposited onto a serving tray as toast.
Clearly the electric toaster has come a long way since its invention in 1893 by Britain's Crompton and Co. and the introduction in this country in 1908 by General Electric of the first commercially-successful electric toaster. Those early models were pretty Spartan compared to today's. A slice of bread was positioned close to bare electric coils and toasted on one side.
You turned it by hand halfway through the process to toast the other side and when finished you pulled the plug. Though primitive, they were still a far cry from their predecessor, the toasting fork which can be traced back to ancient Egypt. It was used to hold bread over an open fire. Today's high-tech toasters, then, are merely the latest tools in humankind's age-old quest for perfect toast -- a quest which is particularly important to the English.
The Oxford Companion to Food notes that toast is a standard component of a "proper" English breakfast and an English specialty with a long history in that country going back at least as far as the Middle Ages. It devotes about 1,000 words to the subject -- five times as many as it does to that American favorite, the hamburger.
But you don't have to be English to appreciate the fact that toasting bread to caramelize its sugars and starches, what scientists call the Maillard reaction, makes toast the greatest thing since sliced bread.