White bread was a staple in every household in the fifties and primarily used to make sandwiches. The bread was sliced thin and sold in a long slender plastic bag with the word Wonder Bread emblazoned on the bag. Fried bologna and mayonnaise, Peanut butter and bananas, cream cheese and olives-whether it was used for sandwiches, toasted or eaten smothered in butter, no Midwest kitchen would be absent the proverbial loaf of Wonder bread. As the main ingredient of a sandwich, it was difficult to be creative with white bread unless cutting off the crusts counted as being creative. We weren’t allowed to cut crusts; it was wasteful and there was absolutely no reason not to eat the crust. Mother told us that the crusts were the most nutritious part of the bread, but I doubt that her statement was true. It was more than likely a ruse to encourage me to eat the crusts. There were no wasted crusts in the Strange house.
Creativity with bread arrived in the form of toast. All different kinds of toast. Orange toast, milk toast, cheese toast, chipped beef on toast, cinnamon toast. These were the Strange versions of creativity with toast and we ate every kind of toast imaginable-true gastronomical delights (except for chipped beef on toast).
Have you ever heard of orange toast? I don’t know anyone who knows what orange toast is except my siblings, my cousins and our kids. No recipe today could match the simple and delicious version of this childhood treat, which is clearly connected to the memory of Saturdays mornings when we were allowed to sleep late and lounge around in our pajamas watching Howdy Doodie.
By the way, orange toast was not made in a toaster. We didn’t own an actual toaster, but we did have an oven, so Mother made all of our versions of toast in the oven, under the broiler. For orange toast, she used nothing more than white bread, butter, sugar and orange juice. It was delicious.
Mother always freshly squeezed the juice with an old-fashioned clear glass juicer, which was a kitchen necessity at that time. Frozen orange juice concentrate did not arrive on the scene until the late 50’s so a juicer was a kitchen necessity at that time. After squeezing the oranges, she separated the seeds from the bottom of the circular juicer and then added 1 teaspoon of sugar to the juice. She placed pieces of the white bread on a cookie sheet and arranged four slices of butter on top of the bread-four squares on one square.
She spooned the sweetened juice onto each slice and popped the cookie sheet into the over under the broiler, leaving the door to the oven cracked so that we could peek in and watch our delicious treat materialize. As the broiler coils turned a bright reddish-orange, we watched the butter melt and the edges of the bread crisped and darkened in color. The juice bubbled as the liquid heated up and the bread became toast. When the orange toast was done, Mother used a spatula to lift the toast off the cookie sheet; otherwise, the toast fell apart with the softness of the middle portion of the bread-now toast-tearing easily.
From the plate, I chose to eat the delectable crispy edges of the toast first. Or maybe the mouth-watering soggy, sweet middle part of the toast, or maybe I cut the toast in two and ate the crispy edges and the soggy middle together. Regardless, the entire experience only lasted seconds as I enjoyed every scrumptious bite.
Milk toast? That was a very different experience. I had to be sick to get milk toast and no one wants to be sick. I would venture to say that the words milk toast reminds most people of timidity and little joie de vivre. The comic strip character, Caspar Milquetoast was the reference for this image, so those people would be correct. However, what I think of when I hear the words milk toast is comfort food-Mother’s special treat when we were sick. It probably has medicinal value, but as a child, I felt infinitely better after a batch of her milk toast. After a night of fever or stomach ache, I would smell the aroma of the warming milk from the bedroom without having to even ask. From my bed, I anticipated the arrival of the warm bowl of milk poured over, once again, that iconic piece of white bread-toasted, that is.
Back in the kitchen, Mother sliced butter into the hot liquid and then added salt and pepper to the steaming concoction. The black flecks of pepper floated to the top of the liquid and jumped out from the whiteness of the milk and the melted butter. She allowed the mixture to cook, while she once again broiled her buttered bread in the oven, toasting it quickly so that it would be ready for the steaming hot milk.
When it was ready, Mother carried a tray to my sick-bed, careful to keep from spilling the heated liquid. She placed the bowl in front of me and steam rose over the bowl and into my face as I leaned over to capture the delightful aroma of the mixture. No matter how sick I was, I eagerly placed my spoon into the now softened toast and cut it into small pieces. Soggy, sweet, buttery and salty. When I finished the bread, I scooped cooling liquid into my mouth as my whirling stomach settled and the fever dissipated into oblivion.
Sick or well, I hated chipped beef on toast. And right now, I’m off to the grocery store to buy a loaf of white bread and oranges. It’s going to be cold in the morning and I just might lie around, drink coffee and eat orange toast. I wonder where that juicer is. And, I probably should buy whole wheat instead of white-my cousin reminded me that whole wheat is after all, healthier.