Is French toast really French?

Answers to your questions about the news.
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?

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They’re just not ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 16 2014 4:08 PM More Than Scottish Pride Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 2:35 PM Germany’s Nationwide Ban on Uber Lasted All of Two Weeks
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 1:27 PM The Veronica Mars Spinoff Is Just Amusing Enough to Keep Me Watching
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.