Toast Soldiers

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.
Albert Einstein

We had soldiers too, I’m sure most children in Britain did and do. Same marshaled strips, little platoons of German doughboys ready to bravely go head first (in my mind they always went head first) into the albumen-surrounded yellow furnace of certain death, from which they emerged, miraculously, horribly scalded, disfigured, but still hanging on by a thread, before, in a savage yet utterly moral dénouement, their young English adversary in his pajamas (for it was me) chomped down on them like a shark on a herring, and time and time again the breakfast war was won and the world made safe before school.

However, it is obvious to me that some who write of this type of food come from a far more well-to-do family than ours, which was poor but honest (largely). Our soldiers were only ever bread and butter, never toast, for Mother didn’t believe in accustoming us to habits that took any extra work on her part or added expense to the family purse. Her honorific of choice was (and still is) the Mistress of Reduction. As an example, upon hearing that her only son was going to have his first child she said, in friendly but serious tones, “Don’t start off by warming his milk. He’ll know no different and like it well enough cold.” As surely I had learned to like it also, no doubt.

It’s a sensible idea, even a clever idea, but one could hardly consider it a nurturing idea. I think much of her persistent parsimony can be traced back to the years of rationing after the second world war when there was much want, even more need, and damn little in the pantry. And that was true for people who had pantries, which Mother’s family did not, although they were inordinately proud to be one of the few families on their little terraced street of slums that had their own outside toilet, rather than having to share a midden with four other houses, as most there did.

The scarcity principle is a hard to shake, leaving many with a lifelong fear of lack, even years later when their circumstances have much improved. On top of that is the fierce pride that many poor people have, especially the British, as regards being seen to be poor. This was the elbow grease that saw all the front steps rubbed in a bright red polish and woe betide a housewife who did any less, for she would bear the brunt of gossip and reproval.

Unlike the other people who lived on our street, and who wore the same sorts of clothes, bought the same sort of food and might have also had a household appliance or two bought on the never never or hire-purchase from the local Co-op, we were not poor, this was according to Mother. We just suffered through brief periods of impecunity which lasted most of the time. Fine. Bread and butter soldiers, but “take it easy on the butter young-un, that’s pat’s got to last ’til Friday,” (payday, of course).

While I couldn’t in all conscience buy a machine to cut a slice of bread into more slices (unless you consider a knife a machine, which some do), I have lately begun eating soldiers again for breakfast. I think this is in preparation for encouraging my son to do the same. He isn’t a good eater. Not fussy perhaps, but just not very interested. Ritual is all with some kids, and Finn seems to be in that camp and thus we have waffles on Sunday mornings, because waffles and maple syrup are great (I repeatedly announce), and thus they are what we have on Sunday morning, and there is no room for discussion because marketing has taken all of the air out of the room, leaving not an inch of space for pondering whether waffles are indeed (or not) what might be wanted.

During the week, and despite the fact that he’s three already, can read words from the newspaper, and holds fairly complex conversations, I still feed him his yogurt, because it’s far quicker to do so, and the thing gets eaten rather than worn. Yes, it is irritating (especially when worse from the previous night’s drinking) to be up early making airplane noises as you mimic the incoming craft that is the yogurt spoon approaching the hangar of your child’s uncertain gob. And it can also get old pleading that said gob be opened to allow the plane to deposit its cargo that will then go “… down the little red lane!” of said boy’s throat. But it does the job.

The introduction of soldiers will, for one or two mornings a week, allow a new routine, a new tradition as it were. One that he will look back on as I look back myself. I have promised myself however that there will never be a shortage in the amount of butter made available to him, for as Wayne Dyer has noted, abundance is not something we acquire, it is something we tune into. I promise to make the signal as strong as it can be.

[I wrote this a long time ago. It was true. And I did.]


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