French toast was not invented in France. In fact, French toast was around long before France even existed as a country. The exact origins of French toast are unknown, but it isn’t surprising that humans seem to have come up with the recipe quickly, given that French toast is traditionally made out of stale bread. Bread has been a staple food for most cultures since food first began being prepared and, up until very recently, the vast majority of humans would have never dreamed of wasting any food; thus, one has to find a way to make stale bread palatable. Soaking it in milk and egg and then cooking it, seems logical enough, making a good tasty meal while not wasting any bread.
The earliest reference to doing just this dates all the way back to 4th century Rome, in a cookbook attributed to Apicius, and it is thought to predate this work by a good margin. This style of “French” toast was called Pan Dulcis. The Romans would take the bread and soak it in a milk and egg mixture, and then cook it, typically frying it in oil or butter, pretty much just like it’s made today in many countries in the world.
This practice became common throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, including making it primarily out of stale bread. Indeed, the name for French toast in France itself is “pain perdu”, which literally means “lost bread” (it is also called this in Belgium, New Orleans, Acadiana, Newfoundland, and the Congo, among other places). It’s interesting to note, for the naysayers who like to cling to the belief that it came from France, that before the French called it pain perdu, they called it “pain a la Romaine” (Roman bread).
Another popular myth as to the origins of the name “French toast”, perpetuated in such publications as Why Do Donuts Have Holes, is that French toast actually came from America, specifically, being created in 1724. The name “French” came from the chef who first made it, Joseph French. Supposedly, Mr. French was bad at grammar and when he named it, simply forgot the apostrophe, as in: Frenchs toast, instead of French’s toast. Alas, if only the Grammar Nazis of the day would have corrected him.
This story, of course, is pure fiction as there are numerous references throughout history of what is now called, in North America, French toast. Indeed, there are numerous cookbooks from the middle ages throughout Europe that even give the classical recipes for French toast. Further, the name “French toast” pre-dates the 18th century, with the earliest references popping up in the mid-17th century, before the story of the grammatically inept Joesph French. Before that time, it was also known as German toast, Spanish toast, and a variety of other names, only some of which had anything to do with the name of a country.
North Americans call it French toast for very similar reasons as to why they call fried potato strips “French fries”. Simply that they were popularized in America by French immigrants. Note: for more on the fascinating history of the French Fry, check out Misconception Junction’s companion site Today I Found Out: The History of French Fries
Recipes For French Toast Through Time:
- 4th century: “”Another sweet dish: Break fine white bread, crust removed, into rather large pieces which soak in milk [and beaten eggs] Fry in oil, cover with honey and serve.” -Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, edited and translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling
- 1450: “Take slices of white bread, trimmed so that they have no crusts; make these slices square and slightly grilled so that they are colored all over by the fire. Then take eggs beaten together with plenty of sugar and a little rose water; and put the slices of bread in this to soak; carefully remove them, and fry them a little in a frying pan with a little butter and lard, turning them very frequently so that they do not burn. The arrange them on a plate, and top with a little rose water colored yellow with a little saffron, and with plenty of sugar.”
-The Medieval Kitchen, Recipes from France and Italy, Odilie Redon et al (recipe translated from Libro de arte coquinaria, Maestro Martino)
- 1187: “American Toast: To one egg thoroughly beaten, put one cup of sweet milk, and a little salt. Slice light bread and dip into the mixture, allowing each slice to absorb some of the milk; then brown on a hot, buttered griddle or thick-bottom frying pan; spread with butter, and serve hot.” -White House Cook Book, Mrs. F. L. Gilette 
- 1906: Cut bread as for toast, without removing crust. Beat egg slightly, add milk. Dip bread slices with a fork into milk mixture, moistening well on both sides, not too wet. Cover bottom of a hot skillet one inch or more with hot or rendered butter. Brown moistened bread quickly as soon as dipped, first on one side then on the other in hot butter. Do not cook more than two or three slices at one time. If cooked too slowly, toast will be greasy. Drain and sprinkle while hot with confectioner’s sugar and cinnamon mixed together.” -Every Woman’s Cook Book, Mrs. Chas. F. Moritz 
- While the vast majority of people throughout history seem to have made their French toast from stale bread, the upper class members of society don’t appear to have done the same. Most cookbooks for this group tended to make it from very highly enriched white bread, which was much more expensive than whole grain bread through most of history, ironically enough, considering today it’s the opposite.
- Other names for French toast around the globe include: Eggy Bread (Britain); Gypsy Toast (Britain); Poor Knights of Windsor (Britain)… (there are many more from Britain, but I’ll just stick with those three) ;-); Rabanada, served as a Christmas dessert (Portugal and Brazil); Torrijas, served as an Easter dessert (Spain); Bombay Toast (Sri Lanka and Burma); and Mozzarella in Carrozza (mozzarella in a carriage) (Italy).
- In Italy, French toast is made by taking two slices of bread and embedded mozzarella in between them, then dipping the sandwich in whipped egg and frying in the typical French toast fashion. This version of French toast is then often topped with tomato sauce and cheese. Obviously this is not considered a breakfast food in Italy.
- In Scotland, French toast is traditionally served with sausage between two slices of French toast, eaten as a sandwich. It is also sometimes eaten with ketchup in Great Britain.
- In India, French toast is made without sweeteners, typically being made with egg, milk, salt, green chili, and chopped onions and generally served with ketchup.
- In Spain, they make it by soaking thick slices of bread in either wine or milk and then dipping it in egg and frying it up. Toppings then typically include honey and/or cinnamon.
- The Portuguese still keep the tradition alive of making French toast out of stale bread. They typically make it as a Christmas dish out of stale slices of bread and make it entirely in the traditional fashion of soaking the bread in a mixture of milk and egg, then frying it in butter or vegetable oil. Toppings then often include sugar and cinnamon enriched syrup.
- In France itself, French toast is highly sweetened and his served as a dessert item, rather than served for breakfast, as in America and many other places.
- As mentioned, it’s only been a recent thing for a large group of humans to commonly waste food. French toast isn’t the only food that seems to have come from the practice of using up every scrap of food. Fondue seems to have also been created this way, being traditionally made out of old hardened cheese and dried out bread.
- Throughout history, in Europe, most food scraps would be taken and thrown into a pot that was nearly always kept simmering to keep the food from going bad. This mix-stew made for quick meals throughout the day and served as a great way to make sure every scrap of food would get eaten.
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