Is French toast really French?

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Sept. 16 2003 3:15 PM

Is French Toast Really French?

Extending an olive branch to France, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, wants the House cafeteria to go back to listing "French toast" on the menu; the breakfast staple was rechristened "Freedom toast" last spring, in protest over France's opposition to Gulf War II. But is French toast really French?

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Culinary historians disagree over whether French toast has exclusively Gallic roots. The simple concoction of bread, eggs, and milk likely dates back to Medieval times, when the battering process was used to make stale loaves more palatable. The question is whether the French were truly the first to dip and fry their bread, or whether other Europeans stumbled upon the "invention" on their own. For example, a similar dish called suppe dorate was popular in England during the Middle Ages; it's unclear, however, whether it was brought over from what's now France by the Normans, who may have delighted in something called tostees dorees before toppling King Harold II in 1066.

According to promotional literature produced by IHOP, the first written mention of the delicacy comes from the court of Henry V of England. It was called pain perdu, or "lost bread," perhaps a reference to the fact that the battering rescues bread that would otherwise be discarded as too old. (Residents of Cajun country are quite familiar with pain perdu, as that's the local slang for an especially rich version of French toast.) Vernacular texts from around the same time refer to virtually identical dishes called either "nun's toast" or "poor knights of Windsor." In Spain, it was called torriga; in Germany, arme ritter.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites 1660 as the year "French toast" first made an appearance, in a book called The Accomplisht Cook. That preparation, however, left out the eggs, in favor of soaking pre-toasted bread in a solution of wine, sugar, and orange juice. The Dictionary of American Food and Drink contends that the first egg-based recipe in print didn't appear until 1870; throughout the tail end of the 19th century, similar recipes appeared under the monikers "French toast," "Egg toast," "Spanish toast," and even "German toast."

A contradictory, though highly dubious, creation myth holds that French toast owes its creation to an Albany, N.Y., innkeeper named Joseph French. Legend has it that French whipped up a batch of the golden-brown treats in 1724 and advertised them as "French toast" because he'd never learned to use an apostrophe "s."

Another unlikely story is that French toast was always called German toast until World War I, when the change was made for patriotic reasons. Though French toast certainly gained nationwide popularity during this era, it's generally agreed that this tale of disrespecting the Kaiser via toast-renaming is apocryphal.

Explainer thanks George J. Oliver of the University of Maryland.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.