Here's to the fine old toasting custom

February 16, 1992|By Carol Cutler | Carol Cutler,Copley News Service

Little by little we all change. Usually we're not even aware of it. Is it a sign of the times? Have we been influenced by politics and changing customs?

These thoughts came to mind when noting that wordsmith extraordinaire Paul Dickson has gotten more mischievous in the last decade. When his witty book "Toasts" first appeared in 1981, it opened with a chapter on age. The very first quote was "Do not resist growing old -- many are denied that privilege."

His recently revised edition opens with the same subject, age. But this time he kicks off the verbal fireworks with Groucho Marx, no less: "A man is as old as the woman he feels." It seems that author Dickson has gone from the philosophical to the ribald, and the new book is funnier for it.

"Toasts" (Crown) contains more than 1,500 entries of the best toasts, sentiments, blessings and graces, according to the jacket. In addition to a wealth of sparkling material to be used at all sorts of occasions, the book makes us keenly aware of how much this genteel custom has fallen into disuse. In tracing the history and tradition of toasting, Mr. Dickson points out that "about a third of the way into this century, the custom of creative, thoughtful toasting began to erode. It seemed as if people had less time and inclination to work them up or memorize them."

It turns out we are not the only lethargic toasters. Would you believe that even in the seat of cultured language and witty bon mots, Great Britain, toasting is not what it used to be? In 1963 British author John Pudney lamented the "decline in the eloquence and variety of the toast in the English language. The last two generations at least seem to find themselves embarrassed by the formality of toasting."

Perhaps the last bastion of proper toasting is diplomatic dinners. Whether in the White House, embassies or private diplomatic corps dinners, toasts are regularly offered and receive a response -- often more than one. Sharp-witted toasts loosen up the table considerably.

But there is no reason that luncheons or dinners at your home cannot be enhanced with a relevant toast. Consider champagne. The sparkling wine is such a festive libation it almost demands a toast: "Here's champagne to your real friends and a real pain to our sham friends."

Mr. Dickson continues to have fun in the chapter titled "Hints for Effective Toasting." Each bit of guidance is coupled with a tongue-in-cheek example: "Make sure that the toast you are delivering is appropriate to the group at hand. 'Bottoms up' would be inappropriate at the beginning of a boat race."

The same chapter points out that it became acceptable to

remain seated when delivering a toast during the reign of Charles II. The good king was often on his ship, the Royal Charles, and, when rising to toast, bashed his head a few times on low beams.

May we offer a toast to the sensible king and all the good sailors who followed.

Old navy punch

Makes about 40 powerful servings.

4 lemons

1 ripe pineapple

1 pint Jamaica rum

1 pint cognac

1 pint peach brandy

1 pint Curacao

sugar to taste

block of ice

4 bottles champagne

Peel lemons, cut peel into julienne strips, and squeeze juice into punch bowl. Cut pineapple into 1/2 -inch cubes. Crush half pineapple and add pulp and its juice to bowl. Pour in rum, cognac, peach brandy, and Curacao; sweeten to taste. Mix well, then add ice. Just before serving, add champagne.

Carol Cutler is the author of eight cookbooks, including "Catch of the Day."

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