More frequently than I’d like to admit, I have moments of intense insight followed by realizations that I’m not actually brilliant. Not long ago, it dawned on me that the word milquetoast would perfectly describe the food milk toast, should such a dish exist. My immediate reaction whenever I have a thought that I believe someone else might find even remotely interesting is to tweet it, but in this case I decided to google the word milquetoast to make sure I had its definition right and that it’s not like an old-fashioned racist term or something. It turns out I had the meaning right: “a very timid, unassertive, spineless person, especially one who is easily dominated or intimidated." But I was surprised to learn that milk toast is not just a real food—it’s also the source of the word milquetoast.
In the first half of the 20th century, Caspar Milquetoast—and, to be clear, I’m cribbing from Wikipedia here—was a comic-strip character whose name and personality echoed that of the food. Milquetoast is “the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick,” as his creator H.T. Webster put it. He’s a timid pushover. In this comic from 1939, his wife asks him why he never wears the “lovely swastika stickpen” she gave him; he's sweating nervously (because he never wears jewelry). In this one, he’s standing in the rain indignantly waiting for the man who promised to let Caspar give him a loan. The past is weird, and so this comic was very popular; like the words vanilla and spicy, milk toast consequently became a food word used to qualify non-food things.
While few would voluntarily describe themselves as milquetoast, I found that plenty of people swear by milk toast, which, in addition to milk and toast, usually contains some combination of sugar, butter, and cinnamon. There are some regional variations, like adding salt and pepper in the southwest, or lard in Serbia. Its sogginess and pleasant blandness promise a comforting, nostalgic appeal. It’s said to be easy-to-digest, which, given that a serving contains close to a cup of milk, seems iffy. Many of the milk toast recipes online describe the writer first having the meal as a young child and later recreating it for their own kids. I’m an inconsistent breakfast eater—I’ll often have fruit, or a protein shake, or maybe a pastry on Saturday. While reading about milk toast, I started to wonder if I couldn’t use a hearty, grounding meal in the morning. I decided to spend a week eating milk toast for breakfast. Like Caspar, I am sometimes weak and afraid. I wanted to see if the daily bowl of milk toast might provide the inner nourishment I need, or if it would only serve to make me more bland.
“Even the most amateur chef” would be able to “whip up” milk toast in five minutes, the recipe assured me. Basically how the meal works is you make toast. As the toast is toasting, you heat milk, butter, sugar, flour, salt, and cinnamon into a pot. Then you break the bread up in a bowl, pour the hot milk mix over it, wait a few seconds, and you have milk toast. This is an ideal amount of time and effort to spend on breakfast preparation. It’s long enough to give you a sense of accomplishment (and for coffee to brew), but it’s not so arduous as to require any real mental strain. The other thing I liked about making milk toast is that it gave me a chance to finally use the tiny whisk that came with my Ikea utensil set.
The crunchier parts taste like Cinnamon Crunch Toast, and the soggier parts taste like French toast. The hot milk makes you very sleepy, and the no-teeth-required bread makes you feel like a geriatric. I quickly realized that it is not really the ideal meal for my modern sedentary lifestyle. Plus, nutritionally, milk toast can’t possibly be much healthier than ice cream, which I would have much rather been eating.
I’ve never functioned particularly well in the mornings, but as my week of eating milk toast went on, my mind became even more of a slog. I had hoped that, perversely, eating beige goop would allow me to focus my energies on more important things. Instead I felt immediately drained. I would find myself resting on the couch at 9:30 in the morning, not even an hour after getting out of bed. Were I consumptive or a laborer in a cold climate, milk toast would have been reassuring. But it left me ill-prepared for my days of clicking and typing.
What milk toast lacks in excitement, it makes up in innocuousness. During my week of breakfasting blandly, I never dreaded it; I just wanted to eat something else. I felt like I wasn’t getting much out of it, beyond a vague sense of satiation. It mostly made me flush and tired and powerless, the way one would feel sitting in an after-lunch high school class in August. It’s hard for me to imagine how this soggy creation could have inspired a new word, but I guess that’s the point.