The Toast in History
"Every glass during dinner had to be dedicated to someone. It was thought sottish and rude to take wine without this, as if forsooth there was nobody present worth drinking with." - LORD HENRY THOMAS COCKBURN
What do burned bread, wine and poison have to do with Toastmasters? At first glance, nothing. But that's because you may not understand the sometimes-crucial role toast has played throughout history and it's influence on the Toastmasters organization and public speaking in general.
We know toast is nothing more than lightly burned bread - or if you're bad at it, very burned bread. The toast's actual history is unclear; some food historians believe that in 3000 B.C., the Egyptians dried their bread in front of open fires to keep it mold-free longer.
So what's so great about toast? Why didn't we stop toasting bread in 2100 B.C., when the Mesopotamians invented the plastic baggie?
According to English writer Nick Parker, author of Toast: Homage to a Superfood, "... a single slice of plain toast is tastier than a single slice of plain bread." This is because "at 154 degrees Celsius, the sugars and starches in the bread start to caramelize, intensifying the flavor."
So what does toast have to do with wine? In the 6th century B.C., the Greeks began the practice of saluting their friends' health with wine during dinner parties. They did it partly to show they respected and loved their friends, but mostly to show they weren't trying to poison them. (The Greeks had a nasty habit of using poisoned wine to eliminate their enemies, thieves and spouses.)
At dinner parties, the host would pour wine from a shared pitcher and take a drink in front of the guests. Then, if he didn't collapse in a heap, he would raise his glass to his friends and ask them to drink - the first incarnation of our present-day toast.
And since the Romans borrowed everything from the Greeks - including how they dealt with social and political problems - they, too, adopted the practice of toasting.
In fact, the Romans gave us the term "toast." To reduce the acidity of bad wines and make them more pleasant to drink, they dropped toasted bread crumbs into their cups. Eventually the Latin term tostus, which means "to dry up" or "scorch," came to refer to the drink itself.
The practice of drinking to one's health eventually made its way to England, where the first recorded toast was at a feast between British King Vortigern and his Saxon allies around 450 A.D. Rowena, the daughter of the Saxon leader Hengist, offered spiced wine to the king, and the words "Louerd King, waes hael!" (Lord King, be of health). Vortigern was so impressed with Rowena's toast, he married her that night, much to the dismay of Mrs. Vortigern.
Rowena's "waes hael" eventually became the modern wassail, the practice of drinking mulled or spiced wine from a large bowl at Christmas time. However, she also poisoned her new husband. Fortunately the wassail is Rowena's only habit that lasted over the years.
The ritual of drinking to a companion's health evolved over the next 12 centuries, until it became known simply as "toasting" in the 1600s. Remaining true to the Roman custom, partygoers would drop a piece of toast into a shared glass. The last person who drank the wine claimed the toast at the bottom, trying desperately not to think of the backwash.
The 1700s saw the creation of the position of "toast-master." This person was responsible for proposing toasts, announcing other toasts and making sure all toasters were given the chance to make a contribution to the festivities.
By this time, wine drinkers were always toasting to the health of their companions, although unlike their ancient Greek counterparts, they weren't trying to poison anyone. However, the pre-drink well wishes soon became such a strict social obligation that poisoning may have been considered a less painful alternative.
By the early 1800s, toasting was not only fashionable and polite, but refusing to toast or drink with another was considered a grave insult. Lord Henry Thomas Cockburn, Scotland's Solicitor General, wrote in Memorials of His Time that the drinking of toasts were "a perfect social tyranny. Every glass during dinner had to be dedicated to someone. It was thought sottish and rude to take wine without this, as if forsooth there was nobody present worth drinking with."
As the ritual of toasting evolved, so did the quality and profundity of the toasts. As a result, the competition between toasters grew. Everyone tried to give the perfect toast, thus earning a reputation for being well-spoken and intelligent.
"May there always be work for your hands to do;
May your purse always hold a coin or two;
May the sun always shine on your windowpane;
May a rainbow be certain to follow each rain;
May the hand of a friend always be near you;
May God fill your heart with gladness to cheer you:"
-TRADITIONAL IRISH BLESSING
Toasts would cover every possible topic, and any situation, incident or current event was considered fair game. It's during this time that the famous "here's mud in your eye" was delivered to critical acclaim, before being replaced by the much more poetic "through the teeth/over the gums/look out stomach/here it comes."
As we examine toasting history over the last 2,700 years, it's easy to see how it has shaped dining etiquette (it's polite to offer well-wishes before the first drink), public speaking (many acclaimed writers were also notable toast makers and speakers), and even our own Toast-masters meetings. The Toastmaster makes sure everyone has the opportunity to deliver their speech, that speeches cover a variety of topics, and that there's even a sense of friendly competition among the speakers.
At least we hope it's friendly. If you're not sure, don't drink anything offered to you until someone else drinks it first.
Erik Dockers is a Toastmaster in California.