Making a Toast

Anyone who has ever drink a toast to a friend’s health or good fortune may have wondered how the word “toast” came to designate a ceremony that involves no roasted slice of bread.

The custom of host drinking to a friend’s health originated with the Greeks, as early as the sixth century BCE, and for a highly practical reason:  to assure guests that the wine they were about to consume was not poisoned.

Spiking wine with poison had long been a preferred way to dispose of a political rival or suspected enemy, or to circumvent divorce.  thus a host sipped the first wine poured from a decanter, and satisfied of its safety, the guests raised their glasses and drank.  this drinking in sequence – guests following host – came to symbolize a sort of pledge of friendship and amity.

The Romans adopted the Greek penchant for poisoning (the ambitious Livia Drusilla, empress of Rome in the first century BCE, made something of a science of the practice) and the custom of drinking as a pledge of friendship.  The Roman custom of dropping a burnt piece of toast into a cup of wine is the origin of the verbal usage.  The practice continued into Shakespeare’s time.  In Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff orders a jug of wine and requests “put toast in’t.”

For many years, it was assumed that the Roman slice of toast was a piece of spiced or sugared bread, added to wine for sweetening.  More recently, it was scientifically shown that charcoal can reduce a liquid’s acidity, and that a blackened piece of bread added to an inferior, slightly vinegary wine can render it more mellow and palatable – something the Romans may have discovered for themselves.  Our word “toast” comes from the Latin tostus, meaning “parched” or “roasted.”

In summary:  The Greeks drank to a friend’s health; the Romans flavored the drink with toast; and in time, the drink itself became a “toast.”  In the early eighteenth century, the custom of drinking a toast took a new twist.  Instead of drinking to a friend present at a dinner, the toast was drunk to the health of a celebrated person, particularly a beautiful woman – whom the diners might never have met.  In The Tatler of June 4, 1709, Sir Richard Steele mentions that British men were so accustomed to toasting a beautiful woman that “the lady mentioned in our liquor has been called a toast.”  In Steele’s lifetime, a celebrated or fashionable Briton became known as the “toast of the town.”

In the next century, drinking toasts acquired such popularity in England that no dinner was complete without them.  A British duke wrote in 1803 that “every glass during dinner had to be dedicated to someone,” and that to refrain from toasting was considered “sottish and rude, as if no one present was worth drinking to.”  One way to effectively insult a dinner guest was to omit toasting him or her; it was, as the duke wrote, “ a piece of direct contempt.”

Saying Grace

The custom of offering a prayer before a meal did not originate as an expression of thanksgiving for the food about to be consumed.  That came later – after the dawn of agriculture, when civilization’s first farmers began to pray to their gods for bountiful harvests.

In earlier times, nomadic tribes were not always certain of the safety of the food they found.  Meat quickly rotted, milk soured, and mushrooms, berries, and tubers could often be poisonous.  Since nomads changed habitats frequently, they were repeatedly confronted with new sources of food and determined their edibility only through trial and error.  Eating could be hazardous to one’s health, resulting in cramps, fever, nausea, or death.

It is believed that early man initially prayed to his gods before eating to avert any deleterious influence the found or foraged food might have on him.  This belief is reinforced by numerous later accounts in which peoples of the Middle East and Africa offered sacrifices to gods before a feast – not in thanksgiving but with deliverance from poisoning in mind.  Later, man as a farmer grew his own crops and raised cattle and chickens – in short, he knew what he ate.  food was safer.  And the prayers he now offered before a meal had the meaning we are familiar with today.

Bring Home the Bacon

Though today the expression means either “return with a victory” or “bring home cash” – the two not being unrelated – in the twelfth century, actual bacon was awarded to a happily married couple.

At the church of Donmow, in Essex County, England, a flitch of cured and salted bacon used to be presented annually to the husband and wife who, after a year of matrimony, proved that they had lived in greater harmony and fidelity than any other competing couple.  The earliest recorded case of the bacon award dates from 1445, but there is evidence that the custom had been in existence for at least two hundred years.  Exactly how early winners proved their idyllic cohabitation is unknown.

However, in the sixteenth century, each couple that came forward to seek the prize was questioned by a jury of (curiously) six bachelors and six maidens.  The couple giving the most satisfactory answers victoriously took home the coveted pork.  The prize continued to be awarded, though at irregular intervals, until late in the nineteenth century.

Eat One’s Hat

A person who punctuates a prediction with “If I’m wrong, I’ll eat my hat” should know that at one time, he or she might well have had to do just that – eat hat.  of course, “hat” did not refer to a Panama or Stetson but to something more palatable – though only slightly.

The culinary curiosity known as a “hatte” appears in one of the earliest extant European cookbooks, though its ingredients and means of preparation are somewhat vague.  “Hattes are made of eggs, veal, dates, saffron, salt, and so forth” states the recipe – but they could also include tongue, honey, rosemary, kidney, fat, and cinnamon.  The book makes it clear that the concoction was not particularly popular and that in the hands of an amateur cook it was essentially uneatable.  So much so that a braggart who backed a bet by offering to “eat hatte” had either a strong stomach or confidence in winning.

Give the Cold Shoulder

Today this is a figurative expression, meaning to slight a person with a snub.  During the Middle Ages in Europe, however, “to give the cold shoulder” was a literal term that meant serving a guest who overstayed his welcome a platter of cooked but cold beef shoulder.  After a few meals of cold shoulder, even the most persistent guest was supposed to be ready to leave.


Around the middle of the ninth century, when French was emerging as a language in its own right, the Gauls termed the process of aging such foods as cheese, wine, or meats saisonner.   During the Norman Conquest of 1066, the French invaders brought the term to England, where the British first spelled it sesonen, then “seasoning.”  Since aging food, or “seasoning” it, improved the taste, by the fourteenth century any ingredient used to enhance taste had come to be labeled a seasoning.

Eat Humble Pie

During the eleventh century, every member of a poor British family did not eat the same food at the table.  When a stag was caught in a village, the tenderest meat went to its captor, his eldest son, and the captor’s closest male friends.  the man’s wife, his other children, and the families of his male friends received the stag’s “umbles” – the heart, liver, tongue, brain, kidneys, and entrails.  to make them more palatable, they were seasoned and baked into an “umble pie.”  Long after the dish was discontinued (and Americans added na h to the word), “to eat humble pie” became a punning allusion to a humiliating drop in social status, and later to any form of humiliation.

A Ham

In the nineteenth century heyday of American minstrelsy, there existed a popular ballad titled “The Hamfat Man.”  Sung by a performer in blackface, it told of a thoroughly unskilled, embarrassingly self-impo9rtant actor who boasted of his lead in a production of Hamlet.

For etymologists, the pejorative use of “ham” in the title of an 1860s theater song indicates that the word was already an established theater abbreviation for a mediocre actor vain enough to tackle the role of the prince of Denmark – or any role beyond his technical reach.  “The Hamfat Man” is credited with popularizing the slurs “ham actor” and “ham.”

Take the Cake

Meaning, with a sense of irony, “ to win the prize,” the American expression is of Southern black origin.  At a cakewalk contests in the South, a cake was awarded as first prize to the person who could most imaginatively strut – that is, cakewalk.  Many of the zany walks were known to have involved tap dancing, and some of the fancier steps later became standard in tap dancers’ repertoires.

“Let Them Eat Cake”

The expression is attributed to Marie Antoinette, the extravagant, pleasure-loving queen of Louis XVI of France.  Her lack of tact and discretion in dealing with the Paris proletariate is legend.  She is supposed to have uttered the famous phrase as a retort to a beggar’s plea for food; and in place of the word for “cake,” it is thought that she used the word for “crust,” referring to loaf’s brittle exterior, which often broke into crumbs.

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