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Mack Williams: In search of Melba toast

Considering the similarity of this week’s column title with that of an old television show devoted to ancient mysteries and “lost” things, if you so desire, you can imagine Leonard Nimoy reading it to you.

Some subjects dealt with on that 1970s show (different from “That 70s Show” of the late 1990s) have since been proven to be “hooey;” but the subject of today’s column once existed in grocery stores and salad bars of major and lesser restaurants regionally (“regionally” is all I personally know of).

But first, putting everyone on the same page, let me tell you how Melba toast came to be (the need for such “tutelage” will soon become apparent).

Nellie Melba (stage name) was an Australian operatic soprano, born Helen Porter Mitchell. Her heyday (“heyears”) was 1888-1930. One story said the chef at London’s Savoy Hotel came up with the thinly sliced toast to aid Melba’s dieting. Another story said she was ill at the time and her stomach couldn’t tolerate more substantial food.

At my check-up the other day, the nurse said I’d lost 5 pounds over the past 4 months. I hadn’t set out to do that, but, figuring to use that “5” as a jumping-off point for losing more, I decided to resort to some old dieting “tricks of the trade.”

I suddenly remembered “Melba toast,” having used it as a dieting aid several times ( several diets, rather).

I seem to recall seeing Melba toast in grocery stores and restaurant salad bars about 10-15 years ago.

I even saw Melba toast at drug stores; and remember my mother using it as a dieting aid (along with “Ayds” diet candy, which I understand lost popularity through its name’s phonic resemblance to the name of the tragic disease).

My mother-in-law in Yanceyville would buy a big box of multiple packages of Melba toast. I think (to the best of memory) there were about ten “crackers” in each cellophane pack.

When dining at restaurants back then, I took advantage of the packs of Melba toast stacked at the salad bar for the meal and for later, pocketing several along with packs of saltines and captain’s wafers (but there’s enough of that sort of thing for another writing).

“In search of Melba toast” the other day, I first went to the local Food Lion. Not seeing any, I asked a worker, who immediately immersed her mind into what looked like the deepest thought (just this side of coma) then said: “No, we don’t!”

At another store, a clerk said, “What’s that?” giving me the strangest look of incomprehension. Such was the case with several other workers in other stores to the extent that their state of “un-informedness” on that one subject made me think they might be similarly “afflicted” on a number of other “taken-for-granted” things.

I wondered if some of them might be those same “uninformed” people I always meet ascending and descending the mall’s stairways. I always keep to my RIGHT (as taught from almost day one), while they always keep to their LEFT.

For further help in finding Melba toast, I decided to check the internet, even looking up the all-inclusive word “cracker.” The first listing, instead of a type of food and where it might be found, was a site devoted to the origin and meaning of a derogatory term.

On the “cracker” aisle of many stores, I noticed many items which would normally be cataloged as that, but which are now referred to as “thins” or “crisps.” (I guess somebody didn’t like them being called “cracker,” either.)

I thought I was getting close in one store’s specialty section when I found “Wellington Crackers.” I felt Melba toast must surely be nearby, but it wasn’t. “Wellington Crackers” are named in honor of the man who won at Waterloo. (We need a cracker named in honor of the man who won at Yorktown.)

At the Amish Store, I found plain croutons, not laced with garlic, paprika, etc. Since some of them have crust, I know they started out as whole pieces of toast.

Not being able to locate Melba toast in my area, I must resort to Amazon.

Melba passed away in 1931; and I must “send away” (“ethernet” sending away) to “Old London Foods” (the Bronx) for a box of her toast. Ergo, the original title for today’s column, placed at story’s end, since I knew it was too long to put it at story’s beginning:

“Dame Nellie Melba Has Left the Building, and Regionally, Her Toast (Both ‘Toast’ Now).”

Forgive that last.

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