Burnt toast

This morning, in my stubborn refusal to do anything work-related before 7am, I’m reading through old journal entries. I come across one I wrote at our place in Berkeley in June of last year:

I’m sitting on the couch reading and the delicious smell of something cooking wafts through the open window next to me. Every evening around 8pm a scent arrives, drifting up from the apartment below, a different one each time but always making my mouth water. Tonight it smells like bread (crispy pizza dough, maybe?) cooking in the oven. Last night it smelled like curry. I wonder who lives in the apartment downstairs and if I can get myself invited over for dinner.

The smell tonight reminds me of the slightly burnt toast my dad used to eat on weekend mornings. I’d come downstairs, already dressed in my soccer uniform, to find him spreading a thin layer of butter, followed by generous lumps of bright orange marmalade, over slices of toasted bread. (In hindsight, I don’t think I appreciated how “British” marmalade was; I assumed people in the U.S. ate it as frequently as they did peanut butter and jelly.)

I loved the smell of that toast. (And, ironically, I hated the smell of the strong coffee that my dad paired with it.) It’s hard to separate the smell of that marmalade toast from the incredible joy and anticipation I felt on those weekend mornings knowing my day would consist of breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts (strawberry frosted with sprinkles), a soccer game, and free time at the local library.

All this talk of burnt toast reminds me of a story about my dad that my friends and I love to recount: Leslie and I had slept over at a friend’s house one weekend in middle school, and my dad came to pick us up the next morning. Our friend’s mom had made us all pancakes and bacon for breakfast. She’d accidentally burnt two of the first pancakes and thrown them in the trash.

My dad, when he came to pick us up, commented on the delicious scent of pancakes and bacon. I can’t remember exactly how he learned of the pancakes in the trash – did it come up in conversation? Was the trash can open and he just saw them lying there on top? – but we all remember him exclaiming, “Burnt pancakes? I love burnt pancakes!” and subsequently picking them up out of the trash and eating them.

There’s nothing significant about this journal entry (though I do smile as I read it, remembering that story and thinking about how scent, just like sound and taste, is such a strong trigger for memories). But I’m excited I found it because just last week I was reading Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” which contains the following passage:

“At home, my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. ‘Yum!’ he’d say, and ‘Charcoal! Good for you!’ and ‘Burnt toast! My favorite!’ and he’d eat it all up. When I was much older he confessed to me that he had not ever liked burnt toast, had only eaten it to prevent it from going to waste, and, for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie, it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand.”

Aside from laughing at the young narrator’s sentiment (“my entire childhood felt like a lie”) I almost couldn’t believe the similarities in the story, including the fact that both the narrator and author are British. (Do all British dads eat burnt toast? I thought.) More importantly, I was struck by the realization that, like this young narrator’s father, my dad probably did not love burnt pancakes but had instead been acting out of appreciation for my friend’s mom and the fact she’d made us all breakfast. 

And – now I’m making waaaay too much meaning out of burnt pancakes – it made me think about how my dad says he tries to appreciate everyone and not judge them for their flaws. “Everyone has their faults,” he will say, “as do I. And I try not to judge them for those.” He is also one of the most optimistic people I know, finding the bright side in everything and never complaining even when things are, objectively, crap. I like to think that his approach to pancakes (eat them even if they’re burnt; always claim they are delicious) is a manifestation of how he lives his entire life. “How you do one thing is how you do everything,” or however that saying goes.

One response to “Burnt toast”

  1. Well, Mads, this is quite the story and certainly overly kind words which are a joy for me to read. I wonder if I can FedEx you a slice of burnt toast in time for your birthday?

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