You might dunk a biscuit in your tea, but why would you dunk toast into your wine?
WHY IS A TOAST CALLED A TOAST?
As with so many things, the Romans deserve the credit. Apparently Romans first dropped burnt bread – known as ‘tostus’ (which, in latin, means ‘roasted’ or ‘parched’) into their wine. If the wine wasn’t very good, the charcoal of the burnt toast would soak up some of the acidity and off flavours and make the wine taste less bad.
In the 17th century even Shakespeare got into this roman practice. In the Merry Wines of Windsor. Falstaff commands Bardolph ‘Go fetch me a quart of sack, put toast in’t’. The Merry Wives of Windsor (Modern, Folio) :: Internet Shakespeare Editions (uvic.ca) Falstaff’s toast would have been spiced or fruited grilled bread. First, it would have flavoured the wine. Then it would have given Falstaff a tasty (if soggy) snack – Literally pudding. Gradually a ‘toast’ no longer required stuffing someone’s drink with grilled bread.
Slightly disappointingly, modern toasts do not involve applying grilled bread to anyone in any way at all. Its just a way of honouring them. Many toasts wish people long life. Its almost like a blessing. In fact, the International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture explains toasting as ‘a secular vestige of ancient sacrificial libations in which a sacred liquid was offered to the gods: blood or wine in exchange for a wish, a prayer summarized in the words “long life!” or “to your health!” Oo-er! So a toast may have evolved from divine sacrifice and prayer. Somehow it makes a cheery ‘Cheers!’ seem much more sinister now, eh? Ancient Greeks honoured their gods by offering htem drinks, but they drank each other’s health too. In the Odyssey, Ulysses drank the health of Achilles. According to the Roman Senate, every meal should include a toast to the Emperor Augustus’s health. Not to be outdone, Attila the Hun led three toasts for every course in ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’.
Most modern toasts still call for good health. For example:
- (op je) gezondheid (Netherlands) – To your good health
- Prost (Germany),Prosit P (Germany), Proost (Netherlands) – “To you/ to your health”
- Na zdrowie (Poland) – To your health
- Santé (France), Sănătate (Romania) – Short for ‘a votre santé’ – To your health
- Salut (Catalona), Salute (Italian), Sláinte (Ireland), Saúde (Portugal) – Health
- Iechyd da (i chi) (Wales) – (to your) good health!
- ‘Zum Wohl!’ (Germany) – To Health
We just can’t resist clinking. Throughout history, man has raised his drinking vessel (skull, horn, bowl, tankard or glass) and clunked it against his neighbour’s. No-one knows precisely why. I think it is because it is fun to do, and it makes a nice sound. Many ‘toasts’ mimic the sound of glasses clashing against each other:
- “Xin-xin” (Catalan),
- “Tchin tchin” (French),
- “Cin Cin” (Italian),
- “Tchim-tchim” (Portuguese) or
- “¡Chinchín!” (Spanish).
Other toast just refer to the drinking vessel itself: schol (Belgium), Skål (Denmark), Skál (Iceland), Skål (Norway), Skål (Sweden). These all mean ‘Drinking bowl’ – and yes, skulls were drinking vessels.
SO WHAT’S YOUR POISON?
The one thing that clinking doesn’t do is prevent poisoning. The myth persists that clashing glasses together makes drinks safe. It doesn’t. Anyone with any common sense can see that it is rubbish. The theory is that, by clashing drinking vessels together, a poisoned drink would slosh into the other drinking vessel so both drinkers would die. This is obviously fanciful.
First, very little (if any) liquid sloshes. Any split stuff would land on the floor. Its not likely to spill into someone else’s glass. Secondly, poison only becomes poisonous when there’s too much of it. And that depends on the dose relative to the victim. No-one would know how much of the – already-diluted – poison could slosh into the intended victim’s glass. No-one would know how much poison would be necessary to kill any particular individual either – you could hardly weigh them first without arousing suspicion. Its just too hit and miss. Besides, as well as clinking drinking vessels together, people often shared drinking vessels and passed them around. This meant everyone drank the same liquid anyway. From 6 BC the host would pour wine from a common pitcher and drink the wine first to toast his guests. This proved that the wine was safe. The host would raise his glass to encourage the guests to drink up.
However, if ever you don’t trust your host not to spike your drink with something nasty … don’t drink with him.
THE LOYAL TOAST
One of the most important toasts is the ‘Loyal Toast’. It honours the Sovereign and is often quite simply ‘The Queen’. However, she can be addressed by any of her many titles. My favourite is ‘The Queen, the Lord of Mann’. (which refers to the Isle of Mann, not mankind). Sometimes, even without intoxication, the loyal toast gets gloriously mangled. The Reverend Spooner memorably honoured ‘The queer old Dean’.
In Scotland, jacobites passed their glass over water – usually their fingerbowls – before the loyal toast. This secret toast was to ‘the king over the water’ – Bonnie Prince Charlie. This was seen as so dangerous, that fingerbowls were banned. Undaunted, Jacobites also toasted ‘ the wee gentleman in the velvet jacket’ namely the mole which tripped up William of Orange’s horse, killing the king. Moles were not banned.
In more profligate times, glasses were smashed after the loyal toast. This stopped them being used for any lesser toast. The trend was fairly short-lived.
‘BE UP-STANDING ….?’
Most people stand up to toast. Particularly for the Queen. Traditionally however the Royal Navy does not. William IV felt unwell when forced to stand on a ship. He promptly declared standing for the Loyal Toast unnecessary. Similarly George IV – as Regent – told Naval officers that there was no need to stand because their loyalty was not in question. There is very little headroom for standing below decks on old-fashioned ships. Their pitching and yawing can make those on the billows… bilious.
The Royal Yacht’s crew shows its superior balance by standing for the Loyal Toast though. The most well-balanced toast must surely be that of the Swan-Uppers who stand on much smaller – and more lively – boats. The Black Watch of Canada recites the loyal toast standing on their chairs with one leg on the table. Not sure why.
Some other people having a special dispensation to remain seated during the Loyal Toast. These include member of Lincoln’s Inn. In 1671 after some very Merry Christmas feasting, everyone was too drunk to stand. So Charles II gave them permission to sit. They have stayed sitting every since.
TOASTING AND LOVE
Eighteenth century gentlemen believed that nothing impressed a lady more than his ability to drink. They would toast renowned beauties – even in their absence – as ‘the toast of the town’. Young bloods showed love by mixing their own blood in their drink to honour their chosen lady. (I’m going to resist any ‘Bloody Mary’ quip.) In Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ the King of Morocco laments ‘I stabbed my arm to drink her health,/the more fool I, the more fool I’. Toasting everyone in the room led to unruly drunkenness. By the nineteenth century a failure to toast someone present was considered a deliberate snub. The Duke of Buccleuch called it ‘a piece of direct contempt’. The arrival of toastmasters was meant to have a sobering effect. It didn’t.
There is a final group of toasts that just urge people to drink up. I know it sits oddly against health warnings to ‘drink responsibly‘ but they include:
- 干杯” (gānbēi) (China) – ‘Empty cup / bottoms up’; ‘
- Cul sec’ (France) – Dry bottom; ‘Kanpai’ (Japan) – Dry the glass; ‘
- Yô’ (Vietnam) – (Take) in; and ‘
- Bottoms up’ (England) – Drain your glass to the bottom.
But what of ‘Cheers!’? Its a shortened form of ‘Be of good Cheer’. In order words, its a wish for happiness. Health and happiness.
I’ll clink to that.