Future Tense for Jan. 28, 2008
By Steve Welker
We only wanted to buy a toaster.
My family has purchased cars, computers and entertainment centers with less research, discussion, debate and delay.
You see, I’ve never bought a toaster. And in this Age of Consumer Electronics — when almost every device comes in a rainbow’s range of colors; made from exotic metal alloys, plastics and ceramics; equipped with digital controls, LCD screens and, as often as not, an Internet interface — buying something as simple as a bread-toasting device can be a mind-bending proposition, not to mention a major headache.
Of course, I’ve owned toasters and used them. I simply never bought one.
We got three as wedding presents. That was back in the day before couples routinely “repurposed” duplicate wedding gifts by gifting them away. I'm old school. Someone chose a wedding gift specifically for us, so we should use it, right? I kept all three toasters and as each one died I’d bring up another from the basement.
Twenty years later, the third had barely enough spring to raise a slice of bread, let alone pop it up. That toaster stayed behind when we moved to North Carolina.
After the boys and I arrived in Mount Airy, we spent a week in a motel — kind of a high-end dormitory. And, as every college student knows, all you need to cook in a dorm room is a crockpot, a toaster oven and a microwave. We had a microwave and a crockpot awaiting shipment to North Carolina, so we bought a toaster oven.
Yes, the toaster oven was versatile. It baked, browned, broiled and roasted. We cooked breads, meats and vegetables in it. We also burned some things so thoroughly that I have no idea what they were. What we couldn't do is make good toast in a toaster oven. The heating elements were too far away from the bread. The toaster oven never produced the crisply caramelized coating that makes toast taste both yeasty and sweet.
Three months ago, we started talking about getting a real toaster. I remember driving out to Wal-Mart and Kmart early in December, just to see what they had available for a possible family Christmas present.
The choices overwhelmed me — two- and four-slot models, short or long or deep or wide, with analog knobs or digital controls and up to nine or 10 buttons preset for breads, bagels, sandwiches, frozen or unfrozen breakfast foods and more. My wife narrowed the color choices to two — white or steel — but that still left too many options.
As is my habit before buying any high-tech gear, I consulted Consumer Reports. Its experts rated 21 toasters (and also a dozen toaster ovens), ranging in price from $15 to $220. One thing I knew immediately: I was not going to spend $220 to make toast!
Consumer Reports agrees: “You don't need a $100 or $200 toaster to get perfectly browned bread. For $20 or less, you can buy a competent product ... with all the basics: a darkness control to adjust doneness, a push-down lever to raise or lower the bread, and cool-touch housing to keep you from burning your fingers.”
That pretty much describes the device Charles Strite patented in 1919, which was introduced to consumers as the Toastmaster in 1925.
American ingenuity and mass-market manufacturers, setting their sites on U.S. consumers who now buy 12 million toasters annually, couldn’t leave well-enough alone. They've tinkered with toasters ever since.
A few modern improvements make sense. Built-in levers can raise a stuck piece, instead of making you fish it out with a fork (zappp!). Some models automatically cut off power if a piece becomes stuck, too. Some have a setting for bagels and English muffins that toasts only the cut side. Another setting warms Pop Tarts without burning them.
On the flip side, I don’t see why anyone needs a toaster that automatically lowers the bread. What’s so hard about pushing down a lever?
I like the idea of having a digital timer instead of a spring-wound clockwork mechanism that never seems to cook the same twice. But an electronic touch screen for the controls? Please, no. I can barely navigate from the bedroom to the kitchen in the morning and I’m chilled by the thought of navigating a digital menu before I have the morning’s first (or second) cup of coffee.
My sons, of course, have no such reservations. They routinely operate digital devices without so much as glancing at the manual. They swim through technology like fish swim through water — it’s their natural environment.
In the end, we settled on a $30 toaster with one on-off button; four buttons preset for toast, bagel, frozen and reheat; and a knob that adjusts darkness. It makes very good toast.
When it breaks, I don’t expect the succeeding purchase will be much easier. A years ago, Robin Southgate from Brunel University in England invented a toaster that could burn the weather prediction (limited to sunny or cloudy) onto a piece of toast. The toaster dialed a pre-coded phone number to get the weather forecast.
Who knows? My next toaster may burn this column into a slice of Wonder Bread every Monday morning ... in the future.
Steve Welker is the editor of SurryBusiness.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.