M.F.K. Fisher, An Alphabet for Gourmets - September 11th, 2013
Excerpted from An Alphabet For Gourmets by M.F.K. Fisher.
That kind of milk toast is part of the unwritten cookery book engraved, almost without conscious recognition of it, in the mind of anyone who ever tended the young, the weak, the old. It is a warm, mild, soothing thing, full of innocent strength.
There is no recipe for it even in my homeliest kitchen manuals, in their generally revolting lists under such titles as "Feeding the Sick" and "Invalid Receipts." It is, in other words an instinctive palliative, something like boiled water. But since some human beings may by dire oversight have missed the ministrations of their grandmothers, or of such a great hulk of woman as cared once for me when I was low in body, I shall print an approximation of the rule, to be adapted naturally to the relative strength or weakness of the person to imbibe it.
MILK TOAST for the Ill, Weak, Old, Very Young, or Weary
- 1 pint milk, part cream if the person is not forbidden that
- 4 slices good bread, preferably homemade
- sweet butter, if butter is allowed
- salt, pepper, if not a child or very ill
Heat the milk gently to the simmering point. Meanwhile have ready 4 freshly toasted slices of bread. Butter them generously. Heat a pretty bowl, deeper than it is wide. Break the hot buttered toast into it, pour the steaming but not boiling milk over it, sprinkle a very little salt and pepper on the top, and serve at once.
It can be seen that compromise lies in every ingredient. The basis for the whole is toasted bread soaked in warm milk. The sweet butter, the seasoning, the cream and the milk—these are sops indeed to the sybarite in even the sickest of us.
I have used this bland prescription more than once upon myself, recognizing a flicker across my cheekbones, a humming near my elbows and my knees, that meant fatigue had crept too close to the fortress walls. I have found partaking of a warm full bowl of it, in an early bed after a long bath, a very wise medicine—and me but weary, not ill, weak, old, not very young!
And I remember going one night to a famous restaurant, the quiet subtly lighted kind like the Chambord, for instance, with a man who was healthier than almost anyone I ever met, because he had just emerged from months of dreadful illness, the quiet, subtly mortal kind. He still moved cautiously and spoke in a somewhat awed voice, and with a courteous but matter-of-fact apology he ordered milk toast for himself, hinting meanwhile at untold gastronomical delights for me.
I upset him and our waiter, only temporarily however, by asking for milk toast too, not because of my deep dislike of a cluttered table, but because I suddenly wanted the clear, comforting feel of the brew upon my tongue.
While I drank a glass of sherry an increasing flurry surrounded us. It took me some minutes to realize that probably never before in the fifty or so years the restaurant had been there had anyone ordered milk toast—nothing but milk toast. I began to feel as if screens would be whisked up around us, like two unfortunate or indiscreet athletes on a football field. There was a mounting air of tension among the waiters, who increased gradually in our corner of the room from three to about twelve. By the time the silver chafing dishes had been wheeled before us, we had three captains, all plainly nervous, eying the maneuvers from near-by vantage points.
The thing began: butter sizzling here, toast smoking delicately there, rich milk trembling at the bubbling point but no further, a huge silver pepper-mill held ready, salt, rock-salt, in a Romanian grinder, paprika in a tin marked "Buda-Pesth." Helpless, a little hysterical under our super-genteel exteriors, my friend and I waited. The flames flamed. The three captains surged into action. And before we could really follow the intricate and apparently well-rehearsed ballet, two mammoth silver bowls, just like the nursery ones but bigger and more beautiful, steamed before us, and we sat spooning up the most luxurious, most ridiculously and spectacularly delicious milk toast either of us had eaten in our long, full, and at times invalidish lives.
It was a small modern miracle of gastronomy, certainly not worth having illness for, but worth pondering on, in case milk toast might help.