The thing about the toaster is that it was the fourth electric cooking machine in five months to go through this household.
I already had the regular pop-up toaster, and a Ronson toaster oven for toasted sandwiches (which despite never having been featured in this weblog, have been a popular and ongoing delicacy in this household - possibly the pinnacle of the culinary art).
Then I came into possession of two more toaster ovens. This happened when I was trying to stop my mother becoming one of those elderly hoarders whose houses often go up in flames. Newspapers up to the ceiling, books filling every room of the house, makeshift wardrobes made from sheets strung over room corners hiding ceiling-high piles of cast-off clothes; that kind of thing. When I was growing up, my mother’s hallway used to be light and airy and a circular window of frosted glass in the front door used to let in the morning sun, now it is dark and gloomy because the circle window is shrouded and, at the far end of the hallway, enough paintings are stacked against its north wall to furnish ten Herald Outdoor Art Shows (if they were still held). You have to squeeze past the paintings. I thought of bequeathing them to the NGV to follow up the Monet exhibition but Mum would have nothing of it.
Running along the near end of the hallway is the kind of bookshelf favoured by students in the 1970s – planks of wood held up by decorative silhouette bricks made of concrete. One of my siblings set it up decades ago. You can’t have too many books seems to be this family’s motto. Several sheets of lurid but dusty batik material hide the lower shelves and on the top are scores of fading photographs framed in an assortment of acrylic, glass and metal frames from the bad-taste 1980s. Someone thought it was a good idea to stick a snapshot of an out-of-focus grandchild in a bright aqua oval aluminium frame with a three-dimensional dolphin leaping out from the bottom across the words 'Magic Happens' picked out in multi-coloured lettering. Many of the frames have lost their glass, and the corners of their off-centre pictures curl out of their asymmetric frames and catch the dust.
I drew back some of the batik and coughed. Books such as Fodor’s 1975 guide to Estonia, Relief Without Drugs by Ainslie Meares, The Silmarrillion, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Correct Your Eyesight Without Glasses sat next to entire collections of L. M. Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Shakespeare in those cheap Signet paperback editions favoured by schools. Black and white illustrations on the cover with spots of colour. King Lear with a green nose. Julius Caesar with an ominous red stain seeping through the front of his otherwise pure white robe.
Under the lowest plank, on the floor, was an assortment of unlikely goods. More old photo frames. Cans of food. Plastic jars. Glass bottles. All empty. Two toaster ovens. Why would you have two toaster ovens hidden under bookshelves behind a dusty batik curtain?
She told me. One had been a gift decades ago (from a friend: no-one in this family would ever give our mother a toaster oven for a gift); the other had been given to her by an ex-son-in-law who wanted a special kind of toasted sandwich cooked for a grandchild while in her care in the 1990s, which only that kind of toaster oven – or even that particular toaster oven - could produce. No, I didn’t quite understand either. Just let it go through to the keeper. The former was brought out and put on show when the friend visited, to prove she hadn’t abandoned it. Of course, she had never used it. It was a brand new 1980s toaster oven, covered by dust instead of warranty.
I didn't touch the books but I cleaned out the entire bookshelf understory. Jars recycled, cans to the pantry, electrical items to the op-shop. Or not. Some second hand shops don’t take electrical items in case they electrocute their customers.
So the two toaster ovens ended up in my house, and I already had one. So I decided to test them and keep the best. Given that hardly anyone uses toaster ovens to bake, the larger ones are mostly a waste because they take longer to heat up when you only want to toast a sandwich. That was the case with the first one - my mother’s friend’s gift. It took twenty minutes to warm up and ten to toast the sandwich. I dismantled it, recycled the metal and threw the wires and glass in the rubbish, to rest in landfill for the next few thousand years. Weeks later I tested my mother’s second oven. Faster, but the grill temperature selector didn’t work. More landfill. My toaster oven, a Ronson Grillmaster Deluxe, was the winner.
One day, I got it out and put together a sandwich of chicken, cheese, avocado and tomato. I switched it on, toasted one side, opened the door, flipped the sandwich, and shut the door. The light stayed off. Opening the door shuts off the power and that last opening was its last gasp. It was dead. It might have been mortified by being made to pitch in competition with two interlopers after years of trusty service, like an incumbent advertising agency being asked to re-present its credentials.
Then the pop-up toaster went, almost in sympathy with its mechanical cousin, leaving the household toastless.
Toasted chicken and mayonnaise sandwich
Place two slices of white bread on a bread board, butter each and add a slice of cheddar cheese to one. Shred some leftover roast chicken and cover the slice of cheese to the height of one inch. Add mayonnaise to the chicken. Spread some avocado on the other slice of bread. Top it with thin slices of very ripe tomato. Add salt and cracked peppercorns. Press the slices together ensuring no contents are lost. Easier said than done, but practice helps. Toast in a sandwich press until sizzling is heard. Remove and spread butter on top of sandwich. Slice diagonally with a very sharp knife.