Who could have predicted that the price of toast would get so many people fired up? So when the editor of Edible San Francisco asked me to tackle the $4 toast saga under the premise of exploring the real cost of food I was happy to oblige.
It’s pretty clear that while some consumers are willing to pay more for organic greens, grass-fed beef, hormone-free eggs, local dairy, and sustainable seafood, many haven’t thought about bread, that humble kitchen staple made from that foundation food wheat, in quite the same way.
Josey Baker, the main subject of my cover story for the magazine “Burnt: A Heated Hullabaloo Over $4 Toast,” says it best: “People aren’t used to buying bread that’s priced appropriately because they’re used to buying factory-made bread using shitty ingredients, where the grains are grown by farms that are supported by hefty government subsidies. The public is lagging behind in seeing bread as an agricultural product.”
Baker doesn’t pretend to have all the answers here and neither do I. But it’s clear that a movement is building around growing quality whole grains and crafting breads for optimal nutrition and taste in an environmentally sensitive manner. And all that costs money. Local, stone-ground, heirloom wheat, which brings to mind Portlandia‘s over-the-top sketch on the provenance of food (is the chicken local?), is now part of the bread making discourse in Bay Area baking circles and beyond. Who knows, artisan flour–cue eye rolling now–with a price point to match, may one day be as commonplace as heirloom tomatoes.
If you can’t get enough of this toast stuff, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge two other recent additions to the oeuvre: Writing for CHOW, John Birdsall traces the roots of $4 toast to Japan (proving the Bay Area can’t claim credit for every food fad). And in a compelling and compassionate story about one woman’s struggle with schizoaffective disorder, John Gravois at Pacific Standard uses the controversy over the cost of bread as a jumping off point to explore how toast can offer comfort during challenging times.
For now, let’s give the final word here to the Brits, where tea and toast are cultural and culinary icons. The people across the pond, who brought toast to America, think San Franciscans are balmy for forking over so much for a slice. But too late folks: Artisan toast is already showing up on menus in London.