Not any old toast

By Jill Alexander

‘Cash book’ – unwittingly the title of my granny’s recipe book, is inscribed in faded, gold lettering on the red, splotched, worn cardboard cover. The index page, darkened with kitchen heat and time, introduces the first recipe, written with bleached fountain pen. Perkins, followed by green tomato pickle, orange marmalade then fruitcake. Handwritten instructions are interspersed with cut outs added by my own mother in the 1960s from popular women’s magazines such as Family Circle and Be-Ro flour promotional leaflets that contained promising modern ingredients to replace pre and post war austerity foods. With cream cheese for refrigerator cheesecakes, tinned pineapples to put atop sticks with cheddar, anchovies to wrap around olives and the ubiquitous vanilla essence.

But these family favourites were not my enduring memory, as I have rarely dipped into this rich guide to frugal living. For me the real memory is making toast.

Toast making was a ritual in my aunties’ house. The day began when our feet touched the smooth, cold linoleum floor with a run to the even colder bathroom, down the stairs and along the corridor, with a peep along the way into Auntie Maire’s bedroom to see how full the potty was under the bed. Dressing rapidly upstairs, then back downstairs to the choice between opening one of the two doors leading to the lounge that ran the length of the house, was always part of the magic. Instant warmth greeted us from the roaring fire while our two aunties busied themselves with creating our breakfast; bringing light, sound and comfort into their living space.

Oh how I loved that moment.

“Sit doon there,” my Auntie Ella would say, “I’m just making your toast.” The flower patterned, linen, horsehair filled settee was substantial and held my two other siblings easily as we sat politely, in awe of Auntie Ella.

She was a large framed, stooped, strong featured woman – the most feared of all the aunties. Her seat was adjacent to the fire – on the right hand side, convenient for flicking the longest ash trail from her Capstan untipped cigarette I have ever seen. Her slight tremor did not affect the length of the ash, which never disgraced the carpet, as she sucked deeply with each inhalation through pursed, red lipstick. Always neatly dressed in a well-fitted Pringle cardigan and tweed skirt, under which she wore thick, neutral stockings, partially hiding her misshaped toes and large bunion. Her short, dark, un-styled, coarse hair was swept back and looked for all like a wire brush matched her stern face (softening when she smiled). Only then did you know she had a soft side – not often shown.

She was always ready with the brass toasting fork, blackened at the tips from the daily toasting. She sat and smoked continually and asked us how we slept while stooping closer into the fire. We sat in anticipation of being asked to have a go as our house only had oil heating.

The fire was red hot on my face and the back of my hand as the toast moved further into the fire. The toast shrivelled and curled as the heat enveloped the backside of the toast. Relief from the roasting came as the toast was ready to be turned. The holes in the toast made by the shiny twisted fork, embellished with an imp on the end, indicated a rite of passage for the white pan loaf. The variation of each slice of toast was unique; varying in shades of white, through yellow to brown and black. The smell indicated breakfast had arrived as the toast plate was piled high and ready to have butter, home-made marmalade or runny, seeded, bright pink raspberry jam lashed on top.

Auntie Maire’s role was to set the table. Always a linen cloth adorned the feast, sent from America by one of their two sisters who had made money in Mexican mining. This aunt was said to be an inferior cook but her homemade preserves sparkled with colour and lined up neatly in the cold larder, ready for the year ahead, with tight, transparent, plastic frilled lids and a rubber band to ensure a tight seal.

The tea was ready in the pot with its tea cosy neatly in place, hand knitted of course by a family friend, many of whom dropped by daily.

Breakfast would be frequently interrupted by members of the Robertson family who lived down the road. Loud calls from the hallway announced their presence, male nephews called in for a bite to eat and a round of witty jokes, teasing the aunties – with not always polite banter. Sitting at the table, taking these scenes in, made me feel welcome and full of warmth, surrounded by this family network.

Auntie Ella often continued to sit in her chair, making more toast, tending to the fire, lighting another cigarette from the ash of the last one – absorbed in her own world. Her face often held disappointment, regret, hinting at dissatisfaction with the life handed to her. She saw off any cheeky behaviour from the nephews and terminated any lengthy stay at the table if the behaviour was not in keeping with household rules. Everyone knew the wrath held within her iron hands and she was never slow at using ‘the smack’ when required.

In contrast, Auntie Maire was soft and gentle, with quick laughter, revealing pink artificial gums and sparkling eyes behind her round rimmed glasses and for all I knew representing my granny who was long gone. She hobbled from right to left on her oversized pins, yet her feet were dainty in her slippers, as she seemed to dance from the lounge to the kitchen on her culinary quest to feed us well.

This single memory of the toast and the warmth these two precious women brought into the room make this the most enduring and happy of pilgrimages, repeated over the years from our home in England back to my spiritual roots in Scotland.