|Seasons greetings from Caspar Milquetoast|
Mild and soothing, milk toast is a comfort food from way back. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a common breakfast dish. It’s a simple recipe: toasted bread in warm milk, usually with sugar and/or butter added. For a little more flavor, you could add salt, raisins, pepper, paprika, cinnamon, cocoa, maple syrup, cumin, fruit… whatever you had lying around the kitchen. Because it was considered such a mild, soothing dish, it was often recommended to convalescents by doctors as a food that would avoid upsetting their patients’ constitutions.
Milk toast is a recipe that Americans borrowed from Europe, where varieties of this simple dish are found all over, probably introduced by immigrants and tinkered with by cooks all over the country. It doesn’t have to be bland, but it has long had that reputation.
Perhaps because of that reputation, fairly or unfairly, this largely forgotten comfort food made its way into the English language during the height of milk toast’s popularity in America. In 1924, cartoonist H.T. Webster, who had been drawing a daily panel strip for a dozen years already, introduced a character who would be his most famous creation: Caspar Milquetoast. Webster’s panel strip went by several different names. The name he used depended on the subject of the day’s cartoon. Regular titles included Our Boyhood Ambitions, Life’s Darkest Moments, How to Torture Your Wife, among others. Cartoons where Caspar Milquetoast showed up were titled The Timid Soul.
And a timid soul Mr. Milquetoast was! He would balk at any situation where he might have to express an opinion. It could be about the day’s politics, where he was afraid to offend someone or—worse—have to defend his own position, or it could be about what’s going on on the sports page. (“Whadd’ya think of th’ Dodgers’ chances this year?” a tough chap sitting next to Mr. Milquetoast once asked. “Uh, er, ah, I’d rather not say, if you don’t mind,” he replied, fully in character). When the wind blew his hat off his head and onto the grass next to a “Keep off the grass” sign, he walked off, deciding it was about time he bought a new hat, anyway.
The name seems to play on the word milksop, which is a word that had been used to describe meek, timid people for years before Caspar Milquetoast was first introduced. Milksop is not very different from milk toast; it’s basically the same recipe, except in milksop, the bread is not toasted first. By 1930, milquetoast had made its way into English, with strictly American origins, despite the French-seeming spelling of the word’s first syllable.
Webster died in 1952, and his assistant carried on with the strip until his own death in 1953, but his wimp lives on in the English language today. You don’t need to know where the word came from in order to use it correctly, but if Caspar Milquetoast had his way, he might, um, well, prefer that you find out and that you look up cartoons where he got his start and possibly enjoy them, if you’re so inclined, if you want, but don’t feel you must; it’s all right if you don’t…
|Caspar Milquetoast decides he's had just about enough, already.|