February 23, 2021

Melba toast

February 23 is the anniversary of the death of Dame Nellie Melba (1931), heroine of theater and toaster.

n. bread sliced thin and dried by heat until brown and crisp
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

It may be hard to believe that saying “I am Melba” once opened doors the world over, but such was the case with the grand opera diva Dame Nellie Melba in the early twentieth century. Regrettably, today it will only get you a side of burned toast.

Helen Porter Mitchell was born outside of Melbourne, Australia, in the spring of 1861. Little Nellie, as her family called her, learned to play the piano but did not even consider pursuing a musical career until adulthood. She married and had a child in 1882 and soon found a rural life in Queensland unbearable. Though she would remain married for two more decades, she abandoned her husband and two-month-old son and fled to London to be an opera star. She was twenty-one years old.

Having no luck in England, Nellie went to study in Paris with Madame Mathilde Marchesi, who quickly identified her incomparable talent, encouraged her to adopt the stage name of Melba (abbreviated from her hometown), and ushered her to stardom. The extraordinary soprano debuted in Rigoletto in Brussels in 1887 and embarked on a spectacular forty-year career, with starring roles in New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, London’s Covent Garden, La Scala, and the Paris Opera. She was even made a Dame of the British Empire in 1918. She was a true prima donna, famous for the silence! silence! signs in her London dressing room; her “I am Melba!” explanations for extravagant requests; and her private train car filled with fresh caviar. So why do we associate her with desiccated bread?

While on her meteoric rise to international fame at the turn of the century, Melba often resided at the Savoy Hotel in London, where Georges Auguste Escoffier was the famed executive chef. Like many opera singers before and since, Melba was frequently concerned about her weight, and she apparently often ordered plain toast in lieu of the heavy French dishes regularly prepared. Legend has it that an assistant chef one day accidentally overtoasted a particularly thin slice of bread and sent it out to the diva, much to the horror of Escoffier. Melba loved it, began ordering it specially, and a culinary legend was born.

Melba prolonged the end of her singing career with four years of farewell concerts from 1924 to 1928, leading to the Australian expression “more farewells than Nellie Melba.” She delivered her swan song in 1931, dying at the age of sixty-nine allegedly from complications following a face-lift. Headlines around the world announced her passing. Dozens of conservatories, music halls, and streets were named for her. Chef Escoffier (who adored the soprano) even named an elaborate dessert of vanilla ice cream, peaches, and raspberry sauce served betwixt the wings of a frozen swan for her (Peach Melba). But it is the inadvertent toast for which she is best remembered today.