It’s no secret that the British love toast. LOVE it. As a snack, a meal, a craving, a delight. Americans, on the other hand, also like toast. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim it’s a love. It’s simply a thing that exists that Americans eat. Sometimes as a snack, sometimes as an afterthought, usually not as a meal.
Some things in America go on toast. Spaghetti and beans do not. Before you stop reading or exclaim who on Earth is putting spaghetti on toast and double carbing their way through life, I’ll tell you—it’s the British. And it’s not just a recent trend. It’s been around for nearly 100 years.
That isn’t to say that Americans are some sad and uptight toast eaters who prefer butter, jam, peanut butter or cheese to something more exciting, like beans or sardines. They have some more adventurous toasts, like Texas toast, Cuban toast, avocado toast, and a whole multitude of creative sandwiches. And while the Americans were busy inventing those, the British were busy creating….the toast sandwich. That’s right, a sandwich (two untoasted slices of bread) and a toasted piece of bread in the middle. Apparently a big hit since at least 1861. And then came the upgrade of baked beans.
So what sold the British on sweet Pittsburgh American beans? They were first considered a luxury item and sold exclusively to Fortnum and Mason in the 1880s before being sold by dashing, dapper, and tall salesmen door-to-door. No, really, they had to be at least six feet tall, according to Heinz history. After the popularity soared of the imported beans, Heinz decided to open a factory in Peckham, followed by Harlesden and then Wigan, which is now the world’s largest bean factory, pumping out nearly 400,000 tons per year. Heinz sells an estimated 1.5 million cans per day and 23% of British folks eat beans at least once per week. That’s a lot of beans.
By why did beans on toast happen specifically? The real origins? One simple explanation is to blame World War II for this, and so many other, food oddities (don’t get me started on burnt coffee). The American company Heinz states that they invented the simple recipe in 1927 to sell more beans. These humble white beans in sauce were a cheap source of protein and had special license to continue production during the war and were proclaimed an essential item, exempt from rationing. You know what did disappear from shelves? Ketchup. Because everyone knows tomatoes are a vital part of the war effort and needed at the front. Unlike beans.
The British take their toast to a considerably high level, considering they didn’t invent the modern toaster (coming out in the early 1900s). Is it a form of British hygge? Getting cozy on a rainy winter’s (or any season’s) day and cuddling up with a warm piece of toast? It transcends class and wealth, with everyone from the Prime Minister and royal family eating it, to those in council flats and, one would assume, newly arrived immigrants, eager to dig in to an accessible part of quintessential British culture. There was a brief foodie period (thanks, Jamie Oliver and your $10 attempts to sell fancy beans on toast) where restaurants and commoners alike tried to elevate this dish with sourdough and fancy maple beans, but the rallying cry of the masses was heard loud and clear. This toast is meant to be simple. It’s not supposed to be fancy, and that’s the beauty of it.
Meanwhile, the British and the Australians have their own special toast tiff happening. Apparently, there are strong opinions about whether or not one can sandwich canned beans or spaghetti. You know, like two slices of bread with the filling in the middle versus just on top. This is why the British lost the colonies. You have to know the right battles to pick. However, one must recognize the soaring popularity of spaghetti on toast, specifically spaghetti hoops (Heinz, obviously).
And let’s not get into New Zealand where the dish supposedly originated where they may or may not add pineapple to the spaghetti. On toast. This “dish” is also commonly lauded for being a quick and easy dish to make in under 5 minutes. You don’t say. If you are curious, but have standards, there’s a take on the idea but with meat, fennel, and garlic that doesn’t sound too terrible.
If you really want to get into it, visit or consult the Baked Bean Museum of Excellence in Port Talbot, Wales, United Kingdom, run by Barry Kirk who has changed his name to Captain Beany. But he’s really lovely and uses his celebrity to raise money for charity and is a bit of a superhero in his hometown.
He and his museum were also the subject of a short documentary, which shows you just how far the British take their love of beans on toast.