Contrary to popular assumptions, the French toast’s claim to fame was not laid by the French themselves, as they can rightfully boast about their ingenious inventions such as the French bullet train, Pasteurization, Braille, or the Guillotine.

The appellation “French toast” dates back from 1871 according to Merriam-Webster. As Brendan Koerner wrote in Slate magazine, “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 [to them] from what’s now France by the Normans, who may have delighted in something called ‘tostées dorées’ before toppling King Harold II in 1066.”

One thing that almost everyone can agree upon — even among the contentious French themselves — is that this dish was originally poor folks’ fare. You take stale bread, dip it in a simple batter of eggs and milk to soften it up and then fry it. The French call it “pain perdu” or “lost bread” but contrary to Americans, they serve it as a dessert topped with sugar or whipped cream or jam. It would make sense to devise a use for old bread, as it is firmly ingrained in people’s mindset in France to never, ever, waste bread. When it becomes absolutely inedible, you feed it to ducks and rabbits. (I don’t keep ducks or rabbits, so I just toss it out when ZH isn’t looking.)

“French toast” enjoys many international variations according to Wikipedia:

  • In the UK, it’s called “eggy bread” or “Poor Knights of Windsor”. Sometimes the batter has marmite mixed into it. (Unless you’re British, you won’t understand marmite — that’s OK, you’re not alone.)
  • In Italy, it’s a salted version called “mozzarella in carrozza” (“mozzarella in carriage”) and can be topped with tomatoes and parsley to recreate the red, white, and green colors of the Italian flag.
  • In Spain it’s “torrijas” — bread soaked in wine or milk and dipped in beaten eggs and fried, popularly served during Lent.
  • In Canada, patriotic citizens eat their French toast topped with the national maple syrup.
  • In New York, Jewish cooks use leftover challah from Friday night Sabbath dinner to make French toast on Sunday morning.
  • In Hong Kong, French toast is called 西多士, which is an abbreviation of 法蘭西多士” (the pronunciation differs depending on whether you’re speaking Cantonese or Mandarin) and is either served for breakfast or afternoon tea.
  • In India, the batter includes onions and green chili and the bread is deep fried, and eaten with ketchup.

French toast is a good example of how a simple dish can evolve and adopt so many facets to suit different cultural palates. A French friend from the Brittany region has a singularly tasty recipe. She uses sweet-salted butter to fry the bread dipped in batter; then as one side is cooking, she sprinkles the top of the other side with brown sugar before turning it over to cook. The result is a caramelized soft-crunchy toast with a subtle salt-buttery flavor that you can eat without adding any other topping.

But back to our original question — how did French toast get its name despite so many other legitimate national claims? Koerner offers this interpretation: “A highly dubious 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 these golden-brown treats in 1724 and advertised them as “French toast” because he’d never learned to use an apostrophe ’s’.

And that is as good an explanation as any, given how the true origins of French toast have been lost in the darkness of timeTo all you French Toast lovers, bon appétit!