A Toast To Melba

By Patricia B. Mitchell

When I was growing up in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, there were four kinds of people: “country people” (those who lived on a farm), “county people” (those who didn't live in town but did not farm), “town people,” and “city people” (those who lived in Danville).

I lived on the outskirts of the small community of Dry Fork, and we did not farm, so I was a “county girl.” My best childhood friend, Linda Yeatts, lived in the town of Chatham, and her mother was from Norfolk. They even traveled to places like New York City, so they were super-sophisticated and knowledgeable, compared to me.

Linda and Patricia

Linda Yeatts (Brown) and Patricia Beaver (Mitchell), at Linda's home in 1960.

I can remember going grocery shopping with Linda and her mother to Oliver's Grocery in Chatham. They bought things I'd never seen or heard of, one of which was Melba toast.

Now, when I was served this exotic delicacy at their house, along with the other unfamiliar and dainty fare they consumed, I was astonished that people would actually pay money to buy such peculiar, hard, dry, tasteless toast! (Today Linda recalls, “Mother liked Melba toast; I didn't.”)

How this product came to be is rather interesting. While under the employment of Caesar Ritz at his Swiss hotel, the famous chef Escoffier took a slice of toast, cut it to make two quite thin slices, and retoasted it. At first he called the food Toast Marie in honor of Mme. Ritz, but later renamed it in honor of the celebrated opera diva Dame Nellie Melba (1859–1931), an enthusiastic gastronome, for whom Peach Melba is also named.