Q & A With Faith H. Willinger: Chef, Author + Patron Saint of the Tostapane
A few months ago, a friend returned home from Italy with a gift for us. When we first unwrapped it, we were totally befuddled. "What is this,?" we wondered. "Is it a paddle for badminton on Mars? A space shuttle heat shield with a handle? A fan for a robot Geisha?" As it turns out, it was for making toast, Italian-style, and the most treasured kitchen gadget of legendary Florence-based American food and travel writer, chef and tour guide, Faith H. Willinger. So we promptly stuck it on our stove top, cranked the burner up to high and incinerated a piece of bread. Time to get in touch with FHW. To learn more, turn the page.
Faith H. Willinger: That's the technical name for it. But everyone refers to it as a tostapane. I call it the "cordless toaster."
SI: How did you first discover the tostapane?
FHW: The man who is currently my husband. At the time, we were going out and we were cooking something at his apartment and he got that out to make toast and I thought, "This is the coolest thing I have ever seen in my life."
SI: Then what?
FHW: Then I used it whenever I went over there and cooked. Eventually we started living together and got a place and, of course, I had to get one for myself immediately. This was back in the 70's.
SI: What is your favorite thing about it?
FHW: There's only one moving part -- the handle. It retracts and that's it. It's impossible to break unless you're using it on an electric stove where it can get all mangled up. Mine has lasted years and years and years. It makes the best toast and it is also great for a bagel because you have no constraints about the width and height of the bread, right?
SI: Anything else?
FHW: It's all manual: You have to remember to turn the toast over.
SI: Does the method of toasting on a burner give the toast a different flavor?
FHW: I don't think so. The difference is toasting with something electric and toasting with gas.
SI: A regular toaster uses infrared radiation -- those interior coils that turn red -- to brown your bread.
FHW: When you put bread in a toaster it is essentially toasting with a broiler.
SI: In Italy, they are sold only at a mesticheria, a shop which we can only describe as the lovechild of a hardware store and one that stocks kitchen devices. Where do you buy a tostapane in the United States?
FHW: You can't. That's why when I teach a class, I always give everyone a tostapane.
SI: A fantastic door prize!
FHW: Every once and awhile someone who has taken one of my classes will be desperate for another one. By now we know how much they cost us and how much the postage is, so I send them one. We send them to anybody. What I really, really want is to be the patron saint of the tostapane.
SI: What else do you use the tostapane for?
FHW: I use it to make a baked potato.
FHW: You scrub the potato, you dry it, you lightly oil it, you put it on the tostapane and then you put a pot over it that is just a little bit bigger than the potato and then you cook it for twenty minutes to a half hour. Then turn the potato over.
SI: What? How does that even work?
FHW: You're making a stove-top oven.
SI: Why not just use your oven?
FHW: [mild impatience] I don't want to turn on my oven for a POTATO. Here, the oven isn't a traditional part of Italian cooking. People would send stuff out to the [communal] oven once a week. You bake bread once or twice a week. But it's not like it's an everyday kind of thing. The Italians have come up with a lot of stove-top solutions.
SI: Okay, so now we have toast, we have the stove-top baked potato. What else can be tostapane-d?
FHW: If I want to roast a whole eggplant or peppers, I'll put a piece of tinfoil down and then just roast the pepper or the eggplant on top. If you want you can wrap up the pepper or the eggplant in the tinfoil and then turn it around like that. It's sort of like stove-top roasting.
SI: The first time we used ours, we were stunned by how quickly it turned a deep black and that it totally resisted returning to its original silver color.
FHW: Yes, it turns black and it will remain black. But you never have to wash it unless you do something really drastic to it.
SI: Does every Italian household have a tostapane?
FHW: Not in every region, but in many. In fact, I know someone who rents a farmhouse in Panzano. She said to me, "The owner thought [the tostapanes] were so embarrassing that they took them out of all of their [rental properties] and put in regular toasters. And she said [in a despair-filled wail] "No, no, no, no, no!"
SI: You are credited with introducing fennel pollen to the United States. Will the tostapane be another jewel to bedazzle your culinary crown?
FHW: I wish I could find someone who would want to bring them over. It's so cool: One less thing to plug in, one less clunky thing on your counter. To me, it's a great tool.