Plattsburgh, NY —
Grab a pencil and paper and write down the name of an item that is knit from wool or some synthetic yarn and keeps your head warm.
If your answer is "toque," you're right, even if you weren't sure of the spelling.
By now, you know my propensity for collecting things — all kinds of things. Toques are no exception. Chances are good that you have one or two. I just opened the winter hat and glove drawer in our Morrisonville laundry room and counted 16 toques. My favorites were hand-knit for me and have plenty of stretch with which to cover my oversized head and ears. They've been through the snowstorm wars with me for decades. If you were to put them on, they would instantly slip down to your shoulders.
Others are machine-made with advertising logos and fancy designs. They sit on top of my head and look fine for going to town. But they resist stretching, and I'm hard put to pull them down over my ears when the going gets rough.
One of them is long enough to yank down over my head, ears and neck. It has eye holes and is a welcome cover-up when walking behind the snowblower with the wind and snow whipping a gale.
My grandson-in-law Scott Marlow left a very nice toque here a couple of weeks ago, and had it been three sizes larger, I might have been tempted to add it to my collection.
In our neck of the woods, toques are ubiquitous. Being of the observant kind, I'm a people watcher and note that there are lots of ways to wear a toque. You can perch it on top with lots of air space inside or pull it down tight. You can roll up the bottom part until there is almost no dome and wear it squarely on top or jauntily perched at an angle. How many old black-and-white movies can you recall where dockworkers and others connected with the sea wore what we call toques.
You can fold up the bottom only a couple of inches, or you can leave it au natural. Some toques even have a brim, while others are topped with a pompon or a tassel. I have heard of them referred to as "sherpas." I have also seen them with ear flaps. None of mine have any of those accoutrements.
If you watched the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, you saw plenty of toques, and many of them were classy.
Canadians claim to have originated the toque, as we know it. The word itself is very old, and I've found it in English as far back as the very early 16th century. But its genesis goes back much further to those close-fitting velvet brimless hats we've seen in paintings dating to the 12th century. In French-speaking Quebec today, we see the modern knit version sometimes spelled tuque.
The tall, white, pleated hat synonymous with chefs is called toque blanche in French or just toque for short.
And it gets even more confusing. Pictures of the unique round hat worn by French magistrates in the past also give the name toque. French nobility also wore toques, and your rank was often determined by how many feathers were in your hat. I doubt, though, if Yankee Doodle called his hat a toque.
The word toque has been associated with myriad kinds of headgear over the ages and has even been used to name the black helmet worn when riding in horse races and playing polo.
We've read great novels in which people wore what were called stocking caps or watch caps. Who can forget that famous Christmas line, "And mamma in her 'kerchief and I in my cap?" I guess they could be considered a variation of the toque.
I have seen weekend snowboarders on Canadian television wearing a kind of toque with a brim. I think they called it a "bruque."
And in my search for information about toques other than my own, I discovered an entertainment magazine from our neighbors to the North entitled "The Toque," which calls itself "the world leader in Canadian humor."
Now, answer me this: How come some people wear wool knit toques in the hot summer, both inside and outdoors? People are funny, aren't they? Everyone except you and me.
Wear your toque proudly. Don't let anyone pull the wool over your eyes. Have a great day and please, drive carefully.
Gordie Little was for many years a well-known radio personality in the North Country and now hosts the "Our Little Corner" television program for Home Town Cable. Anyone with comments for him may send them to the newspaper or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.