The letter came in a plain white envelope. No return address. It looked ominously like hate mail, or possibly a chain letter. Inside was a hand-written note, in rather plaintive language, asking for advice about wide-mouth toasters. It was signed "Anonymous."
Anonymous? Speak up, there! Toasters are something we can all talk about openly now.
But the cryptic signature confirmed what I have always believed about toasters: they are highly charged with domestic symbolism.
The demise of the toaster is not generally reported to have anything to do with the demise of the American family or with the reported degeneracy of our children -- toasters, for example, are just about the only thing Alan Bloom doesn't blame in his best-seller "The Closing of the American Mind" for the lassitude and stupidity he believes to be endemic in the American youth culture.
But think about it. Just about the time toasters became lighter than air and flimsier than a Kleenex, people started getting divorced. Often these divorces coincided with the last gasp of the wedding-present toaster -- that gleaming appliance with curves like an ancient Ford and a certain art deco flair. Replacement toasters had interiors that looked suspiciously like cardboard and a tendency toward anarchy. I own one, for example, that often ejects the toast up into the air and then onto the floor.
The British company that makes Russell Hobbs appliances came along a few years ago with an innovation. This was supposed to be a revolutionary toaster. It used a microchip to control browning. The microchip was used in place of a thermostat. It was supposed to measure the amount of electricity consumed so that you could toast batch after batch of bread without waiting for the toaster to cool between batches. It was supposed to produce toast to your liking each and every time.
But lots of customers had trouble with this toaster. Though it's still around, few stores carry it. It was touted for a while in the Hammacher-Schlemmer catalogue (which concentrates on the "best" or the "only" in each category) but has since been replaced in those pages by a German-made Rowenta. Kitchen Bazaar stores carried the Russell Hobbs but got so many complaints it dropped it and now carries the Maxim, which is made in Hong Kong.
There are four brands of adjustable-mouth toasters seen frequently in Washington: the Rowenta, the Maxim, the T-Fal and the Oster. All retail for around $40, with the Rowenta slightly higher. All are on sale frequently, so it pays to look around for bargains.
All have exteriors made of that ubiquitous hard plastic stuff. Both the Oster and the Maxim are made in Hong Kong and on close inspection seem to be identical machines. They both have interiors lined with what looks like cardboard. They both stay cool to the touch on the outside and both have automatically narrowing slots that cradle tightly very thin to very thick breads. Both are wide enough to hold half a big bagel, for example.
The T-Fal company makes some fine small appliances, and its toaster is among them. It is made in France and comes in a "stretch" model that will accommodate three slices of bread in a single slot. Its interior is all metal. The Rowenta, made in West Germany, has a slightly flimsier feel about its knobs, but it is a relatively heavy machine. Both the T-Fal and the Rowenta have adjustable slots that narrow or widen automatically and both stay cool to the touch.
The operating levers on all but the T-Fal are situated on the fronts of the machines, a design change that manufacturers think makes these appliances easier to operate. I'm not so sure anyone cares, but if you do, you can take this into consideration.
About how these toasters operate: Surprisingly enough, all four actually do their job, toasting evenly and to the degree of darkness or lightness commanded. They were all fine with bagels as with thin slices of white bread. If there was an edge to any, it went to the Rowenta and the T-Fal, which both produced very even browning. Their thermostats seemed slightly more responsive -- repeated batches could be toasted without waiting -- but not enough to make a difference.
These toasters are generally very plain looking, white or ecru, except that the Oster and the T-Fal and one model of the Rowenta have come with what the manufacturers probably feel are enhancing little graphic designs, mostly light lines in gray or red. It's time once again to call out the graphics police: what's wrong with plain? If you're looking at a Rowenta, check the appliance itself and not only the box; the graphics-enhanced toaster is packaged to look plain.
The Rowenta comes with attachments -- it had to happen even with the humble toaster. One is an insert that cradles sandwiches, cheese for instance, that you want to toast but don't want to let run all over the inside of your toaster. The other is a shelf that fits above the toaster and on which you can put rolls to keep them warm. This latter is of limited effectiveness -- it heats the bottoms better than the tops, but the sandwich attachment works a little better. It's still questionable, however, whether this method is any more efficient that just throwing the sandwich in a skillet.
Stores I checked with had heard no complaints about any of these four toasters, which is a good sign. Consumers, it seems, are getting less and less shy about registering their dissatisfaction.
One final note. If you own a Rolls Royce or a very large BMW, you might also want to try out the "Lifetime Selectronic Dualit" toaster from England, sold through Williams-Sonoma. I haven't tested this toaster, but its price is $185, and that's if you only want to toast two slices. If you want four at a time, and you probably do, you'll have to go a bit higher -- to $245. This toaster looks vaguely like a car -- actually more like a subway car -- and its sleek but rounded edges may make you nostalgic for the old solid days. Its slots do not adjust.