$4 Toast: The Story Behind the Story Behind the Story

by Sarah Henry on February 3, 2014 · 6 comments

in baking,comfort food,edible san francisco magazine,food businesses,whole grains

Cover image: Alanna Hale

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.

The bread that launched a brouhaha. Photo: Alanna Hale





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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Roxanne February 4, 2014 at 8:25 am

Great insights. Thanks, Sarah.
Roxanne´s last [type] ..The Right Time to Get Another Dog, After One Dies


Sarah Henry February 4, 2014 at 10:50 am

Thanks for chiming in, Roxanne. Nice to see you here.


Chris J February 4, 2014 at 10:41 am

Good observations. Glad to see the perspective. I have to wrestle most every day with consideration of our existing food distribution systems, the quality of the commercial ingredients vis a vis the artisanal, whole grain or heirloom varieties of flour, produce, etc. This comes up every time I need to choose a place to eat– be it McDonald’s (not really, just showing an extreme) or going to get a Kouign Amann from Starter Bakery. I think that Mickey D’s little breakfast sandwiches are delicious though I never buy them, simply for health reasons, less so for their lack of fair wages and health benefits for workers. Kouign Amann pastries are delicious, but at typically $4 a pop, regardless of the fact that perhaps they do use the top end organic flour, heirloom hand-made and ground flour, artisanal this-and-that and support economic justice for workers in Costa Rica and pay health benefits to their bakers…all to the good. Getting a Kouign Amann is still something of a special treat, not something to be enjoyed on a daily basis.

$4 toast notwithstanding, getting such precious items on a regular basis, even if it is good and part if changing our food distribution systems, enlarging human consciousness about our food and its impact on people, well…I’ve still got to look at my budget.

One simple way around this conundrum has been to make my own–I bake, I cook my own meals, and I use as good of quality as I can afford. I will eat naturally raised beef or pork a couple of times a week, choose vegetarian meals more often, and elect to eat at home as often as possible…because I can and I enjoy it.

Choosing a restaurant these days is no longer–do I feel like Italian or Thai? Its…how much is the typical menu item? Do they provide health benefits to their workers? Is the meat and produce locally sourced and organic? Do I even have time to turn every pocketbook decision into a social or political statement? No, not really, but where the money goes…that is the statement ultimately, isn’t it?


Sarah Henry February 4, 2014 at 10:56 am

Thanks for sharing, Chris, solid points all. As you note, often lost in all the noise is the fact that we have a choice here, where to shop, whether to make food at home from scratch, as you do. It was timely, too, to read your reference to Starter Bakery’s Kouign Amann. I just learned that Trader Joe’s now sells a frozen version of this Breton pastry.


Chris J February 4, 2014 at 10:17 pm

Ah. Well, it won’t be me buying them; too many calories, too much cholesterol (presumably) and the last thing I need are several of these calorie bombs in my freezer. But good to know.

My fridge has four pecan hazelnut muffins, a container of muesli, as well as a five-grain porridge mix so…Kouign Amman is gonna have to wait.


Andrea Cole March 14, 2014 at 10:00 pm

I don’t find $4 toast that bad. Then again going out I expect higher prices, psychological I guess and if I am getting better quality food I am ok with that. But I can understand trying to make a difference for farmers, bakers etc while living on a budget can be almost impossible and balance can be hard to find.
Andrea Cole´s last [type] ..Homemade Hand Sanitizer


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