Victoria Jackson is a Doctoral Researcher in the History Department at the University of Birmingham.
As the nights draw in and the weather grows colder, we’re inclined to stay indoors and revel in the comforts of our home: snuggling up in front of a fire, reading a good book, and perhaps even indulging in certain comfort foods like that traditional staple of the English diet, cheese on toast. But, have you ever wondered how someone like Shakespeare would have prepared his cheese on toast without the use of a modern-day oven? (Ok, maybe you haven’t wondered this!) But, how did people living in the 16th and 17th centuries toast bread or buns, and how did they make those toasty cheese sandwiches we enjoy today?
People in the middling or upper levels of society used a toasting fork, sometimes called a toasting iron, which was a long-handled fork, usually between 40 and 60 centimetres in length, that could heat or toast food in front of an open fire. This wrought iron toasting fork held in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's collections dates to sometime in the seventeenth century and is 51 centimetres in length. Its fork end consists of three prongs, with the central prong curved to allow slices of bread, cheese or meat, and perhaps even slices of apple, to be toasted together. When the toasting fork was not being used it could be hung up next to the fire by its suspension ring found on the opposite end, on top of the handle.
Although this one in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is unadorned, toasting forks could be decorated with precious materials like silver and gilt, engraved designs and inscriptions. A silver-mounted toasting fork held in the Victoria & Albert Museum, incorporates a border of acanthus leaves decorating its shaft, silver eagle heads affixed to the fork end, and an engraved ‘R’ on the handle, thought to be the owner’s initial. An earlier toasting fork, also held in the V&A, includes a dedication from its donor, “Evan Lloyd’s gift from his mother, 1669.”
Shakespeare mentions toasting irons, comparing them to swords:
Put up thy sword betime,
Or I’ll so maul you and your toasting-iron
(King John, 4.3.98-9).
In these lines from King John, ‘the bastard’ Philip Faulconbridge compares the Earl of Salisbury’s sword to a toasting iron, suggesting that his sword is used only for toasting bread and cheese over the fire. Swords and toasting forks are also compared in Henry V, when Nym, a corporal, says, “I dare not fight; but I will wink and hold out mine iron: it is a simple one…it will toast cheese, and it will endure cold as another man's sword will” (2.1.7-9).