The Breakfast Issue

Breakfast du Jour

French Toast: The Breakfast Fraud from Ancient Rome

Here is what you need to know about French toast: It’s not French, and it’s not toast. (Toast requires a toaster. I don’t make the rules.) Somehow we’ve welcomed this fraudulent food — this stranger — into our homes, and though I hate to be the one to unmask it, Scooby-Doo style, unmask it I will.

The thing about French toast —the English call it “eggy bread,” which is much worse — is that it has a special place the hearts of every young cook in the world. When you’re seven years old or so and just introduced to the wonders of that source of fire and magic in the kitchen, the stove, the first thing you learn to cook is probably a fried egg. The first fancy thing you learn to cook, though, is always French toast. The egg is still there, but now you need a bowl and a little milk, some sugar and cinnamon (the latter being the first real spice you reach for beyond the salt and pepper), and there’s mixing and whisking and the dipping of bread before a quiet, gentle fry in the pan. After the cooking, there are more steps yet, and you pull a bottle of syrup from the fridge like Arthur drawing Excalibur from the stone, and drown that fluffy not-French not-toast with Mrs. Butterworth’s (and then fill the plate for good measure).

French toast is a breakthrough moment for a child at the stove. And the minute you are old enough to think to sprinkle it with confectioner’s sugar, you’re practically a grade school Gordon Ramsay, and I think you’re technically allowed to curse like he does, too.

If French toast is not French, though, where did it come from? Ancient Rome, as it turns out — about a hundred years before there was a France. It first appeared in a cookbook called Apicius, and its name, translated, is: “another sweet dish.” The recipe for another sweet dish, presented in its entirety: “Slice fine white bread, crust removed, into rather large pieces which soak in milk and beaten eggs, fry in oil, cover with honey and serve.”

For those of the blog generation, such brevity in recipes might seem unfamiliar. A modern adaptation of the recipe would look something like this: “When I was a young woman of 17, I joined my parents on a holiday to Belgium, where verdant fields of pink begonias were divided by the slim, steel, sun-warmed lines of railroad tracks on which our train, conducted by a stately gentleman of advanced age, with creases on his forehead and trim white locks beneath his uniform hat revealing a sagacity beyond even his considerable years…” Six hundred words later: “…As the kindly matron took away the plate, beams of sunlight slicing through the room, leaving little patterns dancing on the wainscoting as it struck the crystal chandelier above, I asked her: ‘Signora, what was it that you just served me?’ And she turned her head, gazed upward as though in prayer, but reader — she laughed! Such delight was in her voice, and she said: ‘My child, we call it another sweet thing, but you might evermore know it as French toast.’” And then you get the recipe.

But wait, my more astute readers are asking: If French toast was from ancient Rome, why do we call it French toast? Why not German toast or Bombay toast? Funny story — it actually has been called German toast and Bombay toast! Because we’re not exactly talking about the integrated circuit here. It’s a slice of bread dipped in an egg. People just sort of figured it out. (You might be wondering why no one calls it “English toast.” The reason: Eggy bread is sometimes served with ketchup, and no other country wanted to acknowledge that.)

What happened to make French toast French was this: pain perdu.

Like the New Orleans dish? Sort of. Pain perdu — literally “lost bread” — has a couple of different explanations. The “pain” of the phrase refers to old, stale baguettes. You could throw them out or feed them to the birds — it’s lost! —but if you want to play Dr. Frankenstein, you could raise those baguettes from the dead in an unnatural experiment. Take the hard bread, dip slices of it into a blend of beaten eggs and, behold, the bread softens before being pan-fried back to life (in butter). Serve with sugar.

Like all things French, pain perdu became quite the rage in Europe, until finally the dish and the presumed country of origin grew synonymous. Thus was French toast born. Strangely, the very first recorded mention of a thing called “French toast” appeared in 1660, in a book called The Accomplisht Cook. There’s a catch, though. (French toast is troublesome that way.) The recipe doesn’t mention eggs — kind of a big omission in a dish with basically two ingredients. Rather, the very first official French toast recipe uses orange juice, sugar and wine. Centuries would elapse before the first egg-based “French toast” would appear in print.

If you’ve had pain perdu and don’t live in France, you’ve probably had it in New Orleans. (In fact, you might not even have known that the dish came from France.) Where French toast is eggs and bread, the New Orleans variation uses a loaf of stale French bread. Because there are no preservatives in New Orleans-style French bread, it goes bad quickly, explaining why the city’s chefs would embrace a recipe to extend the lives of loaves a little. Slice it up and dip it in a custard made with eggs, sugar, heavy whipping cream, vanilla extract and cinnamon. Fry it lightly in butter and, afterward, lightly sprinkle it with confectioners’ sugar. (Oh, who are we kidding? Go crazy with it.) You can also add Irish whiskey to the custard before whisking because, I mean, why not? Do you think you’re going to live forever?

Pain perdu is one of those ubiquitous meals that everyone around here makes the local way. And that’s not even counting the sumptuous experience that is pain perdu at a Commander’s Palace jazz brunch, or Muriel’s Jackson Square, which has a pain perdu bread pudding, which is like making king cake with unicorn seasoning.

After all this, though, the twisty history of French toast and the lies on top of lies might have you reeling and too exhausted to contemplate preparing your own. If there are no nine-year-olds living with you, Rouses has you covered. There are Eggo French toaster sticks that you drop in a toaster before dousing in syrup. Farm Rich has French toast sticks that you heat in the microwave. But if you want your brain to melt and your soul to ascend straight to heaven, pick up a whisk and do it yourself — but instead of French bread, use a tin of King’s Hawaiian bread, sliced to form. Prepare the egg custard as described above, and soak it up with that foamy, cotton-candy-like King’s sweet bread. You’re welcome.

Start a day like that, and it’s all downhill. But, in one final twist, there’s one more thing you need to know about French toast: In France, it’s not served for breakfast. It’s served as a dessert there. (It’s just wheels inside of wheels with this wonderful syrup-soaked, cinnamon-sprinkled, egg-bread bonanza.) Thus, with the approval of the breakfast staple’s fraudulent namesake, serve French toast after dinner, and end your day on a high note.