IMHO: Raiders of the Lost Toast

By Ron Scopelliti

According to a Gizmodo article, archaeologists recently discovered a 14,400-year-old piece of toast in a sunken fireplace in Jordan. This may seem like a trivial thing, but it proves that people began making bread much earlier than was previously thought – even before the dawn of agriculture.

This fascinates me for several reasons.

First, it makes me wonder why ancient humans were in such a hurry to develop bread. Maybe they heard that a snowstorm was coming and they needed something to go with the gallons of milk they’d stockpiled in preparation. Then again, I’m not sure how often it snows in Jordan; maybe it was a sandstorm.

Second, it makes me wonder if the discovery is going to be belittled by other archaeologists. Will the discoverers get harassing e-mails from colleagues, asking if they’ve found the earliest potato chip under the cushion of the world’s oldest sofa? Will snarky grad students come to their labs with shirts that say “I dug up a 14,000-year-old settlement, and all I got was a piece of toast and this lousy t-shirt.”

Personally, I think the discovery of ancient toast is every bit as interesting as the discovery of Skara Brae or Machu Picchu, though it’s not quite as photogenic. I suppose if the toast was displayed alongside King Tut’s burial mask, I could forgive people for overlooking it.

But the main reason I’m fascinated by the discovery is because it shows something that the ancients have in common with us, or more particularly, with me. A desire to eat toast.

I think toast is one of the most under-rated of all foods, at least publicly. I think we all appreciate it, but that appreciation often goes unstated.

The fact that toast is a valued part of our society is reflected in Gizmodo’s use of the word “toast” in their article. From what I’ve read about the discovery, it’s unclear to me if the bread was consciously toasted, or if it was just overcooked. So it might be presumptuous to call it toast. But would the headline get your attention as much if they’d called it “burnt bread?”

Toast really is something special. If it wasn’t why would the “Flying Toasters” screensaver have been so popular? It just wouldn’t have been as cool if it had been flying food processors or flying garlic presses.

It’s one of the first foods that kids learn to prepare on their own, once the prerequisite orders are given not to remove the toast with a fork or knife. Luckily for Stone Age kids, the defining technology of the era made that that a non-issue. But I can imagine Paleolithic mothers admonishing kids to “keep that ox bone out of the stone oven,” and threatening corporal punishment with one of those new-fangled wooden spoons.

Toast is down to earth. It’s real. We spend too much time around stuff that’s not real. Like playing Windows solitaire, watching RGB dots simulate playing cards, accompanied by the fake sound of cards being shuffled and flipped.

There are no fake sounds when it comes to toast. Just the sound of steel being scraped across bread, and teeth breaking through the crispy surface. Learning that ancient teeth heard that same sound 14,400 years ago makes me feel particularly connected with my ancestors.

And though we think of toast as a rather pedestrian food these days, it was probably a bit of a delicacy 14,000 years ago. If there wasn’t any agriculture, then bread must have been pretty scarce, seeing as you’d have to go around gathering the ingredients.

After all those centuries, gourmet toast seems to be making a comeback, now that avocado toast is a thing. Apparently, anything is cool if you put a clump of mashed avocado on top of it. Avocado toast! Who would have thought such a thing back in the days when Wonder Bread was considered healthy, and a thin coating of Land O’ Lakes was the preferred toast topping. Except, of course, for when you augmented your butter by sprinkling on some Domino cinnamon-sugar from a yellow plastic container unaccountably shaped like a stereotypical, politically-incorrect cartoon Eskimo.

Though I relish the fact that I can go into a café in Providence and not feel out of place ordering avocado toast as a meal, I think toast is still something best reserved for home consumption. It’s best eaten on a sofa, accompanied by a warm beverage while watching Nova and hoping that archaeologists will answer the next great question: Were there Paleolithic Pop Tarts?