Aren’t these just the greatest thing since sliced bread? These toasting forks from a Beehive sale are over a yard long and date to Victorian times. People often interpret them as fireplace tools and in a way they are.
Today toast is something anyone can pull off, but before mechanically sliced loaves and timed electric toasters, making yourself a nice, hot, crunchy, buttery piece of toast actually took some culinary skill. Really!
Here’s step-by-step instructions from one of the most popular English cookbooks ever, ‘Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management’. Published in 1861, it sold 60,000 copies the first year and is still in print. “TO MAKE HOT BUTTERED TOAST: A loaf of household bread about two days old answers for making toast better than cottage bread … Cut as many nice even slices as may be required, rather more than 1 inch in thickness, and toast them* before a very bright fire, without allowing the bread to blacken, which spoils the appearance and flavour of all toast. When of a nice colour on both sides, put it on a hot plate; divide some good butter into small pieces, place them on the toast, set this before the fire, and when the butter is just beginning to melt, spread it lightly over the toast. Trim off the crust and ragged edges, divide each round into 4 pieces, and send the toast quickly to table. Some persons cut the slices of toast across from corner to corner, so making the pieces of a three-cornered shape … It is highly essential to use good butter for making this dish.”
*Actual toasting was achieved by impaling the bread on a long, pronged fork and holding it in front of the fire as you sat on the hearth, much like toasting a marshmallow.
Early 1600s toasting forks often had two prongs, but later 3, 4 or even 5 were used. They were made of wrought iron, steel, even engraved silver, with brass being the most common. The handles were cast in a wide variety of motifs – historical figures, characters from popular songs, poems or fairy tales, funny animals, famous landmarks – even Viking and British warships. Many had loops for hanging by the fireplace. Some toast forks even had handles that telescoped down for storage or travel. Yes, people took their toast forks with them. Fancier fork handles could be insulated with bone, ivory, or wood. Long toast forks were often paired with matching, shorter ‘bread forks’ for serving toast at the table.
Toasting forks were primarily used by middle and upper classes and were a common gift for students going off to university – one in the Victoria and Albert Museum is noted as “Evan Lloyd’s gift from his mother, 1669”. Shakespeare mentions toasting forks and in Dicken’s novel Oliver Twist, the villain Fagin first appears standing before flames like the devil, toast ‘pitchfork’ in hand, as in this 1889 illustration. When English pilgrims landed in the New World they did not carry table forks with them because those weren’t in common use yet, but they DID bring toasting forks!
Toasting forks died off in the early 1900s even though convenient commercially-sliced bread was being invented. By 1933 80% of bread sold in the US was pre-sliced but no one was toasting it in fireplaces because homes were being wired for electricity and new automatic electric toasters. But toasting forks are still relevant – in 1948, Alex Doumak patented a mechanized system for making an ancient Egyptian treat which he flooded the market with – marshmallows! Why not make your S’mores with an antique toasting fork?