San Francisco’s $4 Toast Goes Soft

Oh $4 toast, what are we going to do with you? San Francisco's thick, artisano-hipster toast is a meme that surfaced last August, after VentureBeat's J. O’Dell submerged the $4 slice in the Bay Area's ambivalence about its tech boom (see "$4 Toast: Why the Tech Industry Is Ruining San Francisco"). Four-dollar toast was only slightly easier to swallow than the Google Bus, that odious symbol of well-paid young tech workers black-out-window insulated from the city they’re buying up, $1.5 million starter condo by $1.5 million starter condo.

Four-dollar toast has had cool-headed analysts and lukewarm defenders, breaking down its “lessons.” If the Cronut was a symbol of Manhattan’s frenzy for things that are glamorous and hard to access (unless you know the guy who knows a guy), $4 toast has been a symbol for the way San Francisco fetishizes its maker class. In a region filled with well-payed creatives, Google designers, and Twitter engineers who don’t actually make anything tangible, a chunky slab from Josey Baker Bread at The Mill—husky with grains grown for flavor, leavened by ambient yeasts working like invisible fairies—is an object of fascination, something authentic and aspirational. London has noticed ("The Posh Toast That Costs £2.50 a Slice"); New York is suspected of working up a knockoff.

Yesterday, Pacific Standard’s John Gravois took the $4 toast meme in an unexpected direction, one that fixes the roots of SF’s toast in a rather odd café and an owner struggling with schizoaffective disorder. Gravois says Trouble Coffee’s Giulietta Carrelli put cinnamon toast on the menu for its power to soothe and to comfort, not to serve as picturesque refreshment for the scruffy chic or to be opulently crafty.

Honestly, I’m not 100 percent sure about Carrelli being the godmother of $4 toast. It might have been part of The Mill’s inspiration; certainly the toasted slabs of Chad Robertson’s levain at Tartine Bakery had to have been a more immediate model. But Gravois tells a beautiful story, and if there’s anything San Francisco loves more than outrage and food, it’s a quirky maverick behind food. And Gravois blunted the edges of the $4 toast narrative since, as Nigel Slater observed in Toast, “It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you. ”

I had a slab of $4 toast today. Actually it cost $3, an inch-tall slice of whole wheat from The Mill, sold at a café near my office. It weighed 5 ounces, was chewy and delicious, with a malty sweetness achieved through patient fermentation and fearless browning. I got it spread with apple butter from Berkeley’s June Taylor, along with a heavy layer of our own self-mythologizing.

Photo by John Birdsall