Burnt Toast

Marcel Proust had his fragrant shell-shaped madeleine and linden flower tea. I have my burnt toast.

How often have you found that a simple smell can carry you back in time or far away? It happens to all of us, the sense of smell being strongly linked to evoking memories. Scientists can now prove this through brain scans, but artists and psychiatrists have long noted how taste and smell work with long-past memories far more than other senses. Proust says it so eloquently:

“When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

For Proust, it wasn’t simply the beautiful shape of the madeleine, but the smell and taste of the madeline dipped in the linden flower tea that brought back a flood of memories.

lovely madeleines and tea

The other morning as I waited for two eggs to boil, I made some toast. It was lovely whole grain bread bought in a farmer’s market here in London. I cut the slice a bit unevenly, and I think it was this that caused the bread to stay down too long in the toaster. I smelled it before I noticed the smoke. The bread was burnt. Feeling annoyed that I hadn’t caught this in time, I grabbed a knife and began to scrape the charred layer from the toast. You can guess where I am going with this, can’t you? In a split second or two a long forgotten memory came flooding back from my early childhood. The poem, “Burnt Toast” was written later in the week. Interestingly, as I wrote each draft, I imagined the smell of the burnt toast over and over.

burning toast

Burnt Toast

I burnt the toast.
The butter knife
rasped across
the too dark toast.
Sooty crumbs
flurried down
into the sink,
and the smell
of blackened bread
brought back memories
of momma doing this,
scraping the bad away.

Hazel eyes twinkling,
she’d tell us the burnt part
would whiten our smiles,
and we’d always laugh
at this silly joke,
never quite sure
if it might not be true.

But one lost slice
was one less meal,
and she was unwavering.
We would never
know the hunger
that hovered close by.

Even to this day,
I have a strange fondness
for slightly charred bits of food,
my mother always standing there,
at the edges of my memory.


29 thoughts on “Burnt Toast

  1. Lovely! I really like how you’ve included the history of how this poem came to be, in your post. Yes, smells can be very evocative. For me, its the fragrance of yellow gorse, and the scent of woodsmoke from a campfire made with fallen sticks and twigs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I so love this poem. . It reminds me of the flat in Oxford with the hand operated toaster I bought in a second-hand shop for 13 shillings, which, if we didn’t pay proper attention, burnt the toast.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mary this poem really floods me with memories. I am a light toast person but my daughter Courtney is a dark toaster. She would often forget to change the toaster setting when done toasting. One morning when she was still in lower school I got dark toast and fussed. Her reply was “your usual toast is barely warm but mine has character.” From then on I’ve always used burnt toast and character interchangeably. Thanks for reminder! Love your poetry and can’t wait for the book!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I come from a long line of non cooks so burnt and I are close friends. I loved the line mom scrapping the bad away. I also loved how you pulled in the why we scrapped toast rather than start anew. Powerful reminder to be grateful. Wrapping tbe poem in food and our emotion connection to food is brilliant. Love it.

    Liked by 1 person

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