Elegantly Toasted: A history of “toasts” and how to make a good one!
By Debra Meiburg MW
Some people like their toast in the morning, but others prefer to toast while holding a glass. No one knows for sure how the tradition of toasting began, but surely toasts have been around from the moment our ancestors discovered that fermented juices can make you tipsy.
The Greeks are amongst the earliest groups to toast to the health of their friends for a most practical reason: to assure them the wine was not laced with poison. Poisoned wines – or any beverage for that matter — were a means of conveniently disposing of one’s enemies, competition or dowdy spouse. It became customary for hosts to drink a glass of wine from the communal pitcher before serving guests to prove the wine was in safe condition.
The Romans handled their interpersonal problems similarly and so readily adopted the Greek habit of toasting. The term toast is derived from the Roman habit of dipping burnt bread into the wine. Anyone who has been treated for an upset tummy with charcoal will immediately understand the benefits of plopping a piece of charcoal into the pitcher. Charcoal reduces the wine’s acidity and effectively cleans up or filters the wine. Charcoal has long been in the winemaker’s tool kit, though used only as a last resort. Charcoal can make an unsellable wine sellable and has the capacity to remove color from wine, so is used as a cleanup remedy if red wine is accidentally spilled into the white wine tank. It is also useful in removing severe off-odors, which gives you an idea of wine quality during the Roman era.
In the 1700’s it became the custom to proffer a toast to the health of those absent from the party, usually a celebrity or beautiful woman. A lovely woman who became a frequent centerpiece of these toasts was lauded as the “toast of the town.” The exuberance at which Europeans adopted the custom of toasting led leaders such as Charles V, Maximilan and Louis IV to ban toasting. However, by the 1800’s toasting became an indelible sign of etiquette with a British Duke declaring that every glass must be dedicated to someone and to do otherwise was “sottish and rude” as though there were no one worthwhile to toast. To omit toasting a guest was considered a subtle insult or as the Duke put it “a piece of direct contempt.”
Though the witty verbal toast has long been customary in British society, these days most often one hears a simple word or two, such as “Cheers” “To your health” or “To good friends.”
When it comes to giving a toast, keep it simple and speak from the heart. Be brief and to the point. Never offer a toast before the host has had the chance to do so. It might be wise to have a couple of stock toasts in one’s repertoire and, if offering a toast, be sure to have a clearly defined finish, such as “raise your glass” or “to Eric.” If you find your glass is empty while your host is waxing eloquent, it is correct to raise your empty wine glass – or any other – in response to the toast.