There is no doubt that I have my share of idiosyncratic behavioral repertoires.
But don’t we all?
A salient one in my case has to do with toast. Yes, toast! I happen to like – actually, insist on –my toast hot and very dark, black even.
So on a recent morning I am in a good mood and happily anticipating my typical breakfast consisting of coffee, omelet, bacon, and toast. And it is on this last item that I constantly run into difficulties – fundamentally, I believe, it involves some inexplicable difficulty in communications. You would think that in an over-educated university town like Iowa City people who work in the food trade could follow the fairly simple instructions involved in an order for breakfast. I am, after all, not asking anyone to send a rocket to Mars or do neurosurgery – just bring me the actual breakfast that I order.
In any event, I enter the restaurant, find a good seat, and soon a waitress appears with a menu in hand.
“That’s fine,” I say, smiling, and making a dismissive gesture, “I already know what I’d like.”
She pulls out her notebook.
“Great,” she enthuses.
“I’d like black coffee, two egg-whites well done into an omelet, two strips of dry, crisp bacon, and two slices of dry dark toast.”
She writes it all down.
“You don’t want any yolks?”
“No, thanks. Nothing but the egg whites.”
“Cheese in the middle?”
“No. No, thanks. I’ll just take the egg-whites plain. OK? Nothing but the egg-whites.”
“And,” I add as she pulls away, “about that toast, I’d like you to make sure it’s very dark. Black even.” I point to her black pants. “I want them to be as black as the color of your pants.”
She chuckles, nods her head, and scribbles.
“In other words, you want it burned. Right?”
“Right. That’s exactly right! Black, black as your pants.”
“Will do,” she says cheerfully. “Be right back with your coffee.”
True to her word, she is back with the coffee in a jiff. Jiff is not, however, the terminology that accurately measures my waiting time for breakfast. At half a cup of coffee remaining, I go to the newspaper bin and pick up copies of USA Today and The Cedar Rapids Gazette. I finish leafing through both and skimming some predictable screeds about yesterday’s corruption and mayhem at home and abroad, and just as I finish my coffee and the food arrives my mood departs.
“Here we are,” she says and puts the plate down in front of me.
The coffee has been good, and the omelet looks just fine. The bacon (three strips, incidentally, but what the hell – two, three, potato, potahto) is not exactly dry and exactly not crisp (but what the hell – crisp, limp, tomato, tomahto). But I have to draw a line in the salt when I see the toast – two flaccid pieces of bread mottled a much etiolated puce. It is, I think in a flash of sudden insight, as though we as a people have internalized a kind of Platonic template of what ‘toast’ is, and a stranger like (truly) black toast simply cannot be afforded any conceivable ontological status. Therefore, how could it be served? I mean, it doesn’t even exist! Ergo, my hot black toast metamorphoses into a sickly lukewarm pale that the adjusting mind ‘reads’ as black toast. Quod erat demonstrandum.
But, hey, no more Mr. Tomato Tomahto, much less Mr. Potato Potahto.
“This is definitely not the toast I ordered,” I say, my throat constricting in the effort to remain polite.
She looks at the pallid creation on my plate. “Yeah, you’re right. You did say dark toast, didn’t you. Black toast.”
“Yes, I did. I don’t want warm bread. I want black toast.”
“Sorry about that. Here, let me take it back to the kitchen.”
“And while I’m waiting the bacon and the omelet get cold. ‘Cuz I don’t want to eat the bacon and eggs without the toast and then the toast without the eggs and bacon.” She looks at me, as if puzzled. “See what I mean?”
She nods, fully appreciating the dilemma. She’s quick on her feet. “Here,” she says, grabbing my plate, “I’ll keep them warm in the kitchen while we fix the toast.”
And before I can object she whisks the plate away.
Only to return half a minute later with my plate minus the toast. I say nothing, but do wonder how this arrangement will keep the bacon and eggs warm.
“It’ll just be a minute.”
Her understanding of ‘minute’ proves to my way of reckoning time to be highly elastic.
At this point, to your way of reckoning, my passion for black, almost burned toast may well seem irrational, perhaps even a bit pathological. So be it! I make no excuses. It may be both of those things and even worse. But, it is not a passion proscribed by society’s legal codes, it is not harmful to any person or persons, and it is certainly no more unreasonable than ordering a very well-done porterhouse. I simply don’t like warm bread but simply love black toast. Of course, the reasons (whatever they may be) why are utterly beside the point here. And, for the record, I have never been able to respond adequately (even to myself) to people’s understandable questions about the origin of this culinary – if you will – fetish. As for myself, I simply do a comfortable Buddhist take and just leave it at that: it is what it is. Deal with it.
But — getting back to unfolding events — while I sit and wait for my rehabilitated toast to emerge from the kitchen, I watch the three=two ‘crisp, dry’ bacon I ordered turn cold. The erstwhile shining grease trapped in the mathematically complex topological folds of said strips is rapidly losing its sheen as pockets of congealed and congealing specks of a sickly white begin to dot their length and breadth like some dread outbreak of a pustule-manifesting contagion. Revulsion at this image I have conjured up sends my restless imagination off to the kitchen, and I can almost feel a rage so intense there at my outrageous dissatisfaction that it prompts the sour staff to spit all over my ochre-tinted bread before it is fingered and plopped down into the high heat of a toaster that will in the process of finally blackening my bread burn off the disgusting signs of these vindictive expectorates.
So much for the toast of the town …
By now I have definitely lost my appetite.
I ask for the check.
I approach the tall lovely standing at the cashier’s counter.
“And how was everything this morning, sir?”
“It was entirely inadequate!”
She is visibly taken aback, rocking briefly to the rear.
“Inadequate?” The voice is low. “What do you mean?”
I start to feel that maybe I have over-reacted. All this because the toast was not dark enough? What am I, some wacko land-locked version of Captain Queeg going after the strawberry thief?
A committee meeting of fractious lunatics is quickly called in my head. Should I try to explain, should I smile, should I ignore it, what? Could this statuesque beauty ever appreciate how – seriously! – greatly this incident, familiar though it by now unhappily is, has fouled my mood. What’s the point?
She recovered, and asked, not unkindly, “Can you tell me what went wrong? That way I can try to do something about correcting it.”
That was true graciousness ‘gainst my touchy gruffness.
“Well,” I drawled, trying to give voice to a wry amusement I am far from feeling, “maybe you could ask the kitchen staff just to follow the instructions from the waitress. She was certainly not the problem here.”
I paid the woman.
I left the restaurant, which shall remain as nameless as never again patronized.
I went home, sliced up a banana over which I poured dry cereal, and, as I munched away in sullen pique, “Hey,” my cool rational head said to my warmly sensitive heart, “aren’t you holding on just a little too tight there, friend?”