The History Of French Toast
Before we get into french toast history, I want to know what first comes to your mind when I say the words French Toast?
For me, the first thing is big Dwayne Johnson tucking into a massive cheat meal of the stuff, topped with peanut butter and heaps of maple syrup.
Like him eating that giant portion is celebrated as he’s done such a heft of workouts during the week, but if we were to eat something like that it would appear as though we’d hit ROCK bottom.
French Toast, eggy bread, Bombay toast, German toast, gipsy toast or poor knights of Windsor is a dish made of sliced bread soaked in beaten egg and typically milk.
Some people actually flavour the milk too with cinnamon, vanilla or sugar to give an even deeper flavour to the bread.
Once soaked, it is then pan-fried until crispy and caramelised. You’ll often find French Toast topped with fruit, powdered sugar, syrup or butter. However, it can be served as a savoury dish too with shit like ketchup or mayonnaise being used to sauce it up.
What do you think of French toast?
Ever eaten it?
What was on it?
Now before doing the research for this episode I had no idea how global French toast was.
There looks to be a plethora of international versions of this dish all with their very own unique names.
Now because I’m a lovely friend, I’m now going to get Miles here to struggle through reading a selection of the various names for French Toast Around the world.
Algeria – pin doray.
Denmark – Arme Riddere
France – Pain Perdu
Greece – avgofétes
Poland – chleb w jajku
Netherlands – wentelteefjes or gewonnen brood
I spent some time trying to understand why French toast is popular worldwide and I think the answer is pretty simple.
What are the three main things that are almost always included in people’s grocery shopping? What three things do people most rely on for sustenance around the world?
Bread, Milk & Eggs.
What is French Toast?
Those three guys mixed together basically.
That’s just my own theory but I think it makes perfect sense.
Anyway without further ado, let’s get into the history of French Toast.
Listen To The What The Food Podcast
It’s obviously French, right?
Now you may be thinking:
“This episode is gonna be rubbish as French toast is obviously French. The clue is in the name ya dingleberry”.
Well sir you are both rude and wrong.
The earliest known reference to French toast actually dates ALL the way back to ancient Rome.
Yes, that is right. Our guy Caesar in between mouthfuls of his salad might have been chomping on some French Toast.
This reference is in a collection of Latin recipes known as the Apicius. The Apicius dates back to the 1st century AD and its name is taken from the habits of one Marcus Gavius Apicius.
This dude was a Roman gourmet who lived sometime in the 1st century AD during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, the second Roman emperor taking over from Augustus himself.
Now it’s impossible to attribute the Apicius cookbook directly to Apicius, but this guy truly looked to have lived a life of luxury.
He would basically travel around, eating tasty shit and meeting cool people. He advised that the tongue of a flamingo had superb flavour, he wouldn’t eat cabbage as that was the food of the common people and would always drown his red mullet fish in fish sauce before cooking.
One source said he was:
born to enjoy every extravagant luxury that could be contrived
Another little story we have about Apicius:
Having heard of the boasted size and sweetness of the shrimps taken near the Libyan coast, Apicius commandeered a boat and crew, but when he arrived, disappointed by the shrimps he was offered by the local fishermen who came alongside in their boats and comparing them to the excellent crawfish he was accustomed to at his villa, he turned round and returned to Minturnae “without going ashore”
This guy was a cross between like an ancient Jay Rayner and Sean Penn.
Anyway, his book had recipes typical of the dietary habits of the ancient world around the Mediterranean basin and are mostly geared towards the wealthier of people.
Here is an example of a recipe within the book for a lamb stew:
Put the pieces of meat into a pan. Finely chop an onion and coriander, pound pepper, lovage, cumin, garum, oil, and wine. Cook, turn out into a shallow pan, thicken with wheat starch. If you take lamb you should add the contents of the mortar while the meat is still raw, if kid, add it while it is cooking.
Pretty standard recipe stuff if not a little vague.
So French toast, where were we?
Oh yeah, French Toast is first mentioned in the Apicius and is simply described as Aliter Dulcia. This roughly translates to – Another sweet dish.
The recipe says:
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
Basically the same we do today, right?
Little if anything looks to have changed in terms of the basic method for making French toast in nearly 2000 years.
Does that mean it’s the perfect food?
Kinda like how crocodiles and alligators haven’t evolved as they are already the perfect killing machines.
Well, let’s see if it does in fact change between then and now.
Ze Germans Or The Gentleman Knights?
Now the next time we see French toast pop back up in history is during the medieval era.
The simple concoction of bread, eggs, and milk makes a batter that was used to make stale loaves more palatable. But it is disputed as to whether the individual areas of Europe stumbled upon this discovery by themselves or whether the French were the first to dip their bread and spread it around.
We know that there was a dish that was highly popular in the medieval era, particularly in England, called Suppe Dortae however, 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.
The first written mention of the FT comes from the court of Henry V of England. It was called pain perdu, or “lost bread,”. This is perhaps a reference to the fact that the battering rescues bread that would otherwise be discarded as too old.
Around the same time separate texts from around Europe also included their own versions of French Toast. In Spain it was called Torriga and in Germany it was called Arme Ritter.
Now before we go any further, I found something a bit strange about the German translation that I thought would be worth mentioning.
So Arme Ritter in English translates to Poor Knight.
I saw this and was immediately rock hard.
I knew there would be some mad little story about that origin of their version of the dish with a name like that.
What I came across was a little odd and doesn’t really make a lot of sense but I thought I’d share it anywho.
So the dish is thought to have gained its name from the order of knights established by Edward III.
Quick quote to summarise Edward III just in case anybody wasn’t familiar with him.
He was the flower of earthly warriors, under whom to fight was to rule, to go forth was to prosper, to contend was to triumph … Against his foes he was grim as a leopard, toward his subjects mild as a lamb.
Pretty decent ruler by all accounts.
These knights are men who have fallen on hard times after the battle of Crecy in 1346 where the English lost just 300 men and the French are thought to have lost around 4000 men.
Fun fact about the battle of Crecy, it was the first and biggest battle in which longbowmen fought against knights and won against overwhelming numbers. This is where the English Longbow established itself as a powerhouse in Medieval warfare.
Anyway, although the battle was a resounding victory for the English, a couple of knights were still captured by the French. And in order to be set free, they had to sell off their home estates and ransom themselves out of capture. Thus leaving them poor.
The story goes that Edward felt bad for these knights and set up the Poor Knights of Windsor. The knights were given residence in Windsor Castle, and they worked for their housing by performing duties around the castle.
As they were poor, they could only afford to eat bread, eggs and milk. Naturally, they experimented as eating the same shit every night would have been worse than being a captive of the French and eventually are said to have concocted French Toast.
Here is their recipe:
Cut two penny loaves in round slices, dip them in half a pint of Cream or faire water, then lay them abroad in a dish, and beat three Eggs and grated Nutmegs and sugar, beat them with the Cream then melt some butter in a frying pan, and wet the sides of the toasts and lay them in on the wet side, then pour in the rest upon them, and so fry them, serve them in with Rosewater, sugar and butter.
Now, this story is nice but I think it’s got a few too many holes for my liking.
Like surely there is cheaper stuff to eat than bread, eggs and milk? Gruel for example?
Not really buying it but still an interesting story of French Toast history.
Funnily enough, The Poor Knights of Windsor still exist today but are no longer necessarily poor and no longer called as such. They are now known as military knights and mostly consist of military pensioners.
Taillevent & The Le Viandier
Now we’ve spoken about the English side of things, surely given its name the French have something to do with it right?
Kinda, but not how you might think.
The French come into the equation thanks to one of the most important figures in Medieval French Cuisine, Guillaume Tirel, Or Taillevent as he was known.
Taillevent was a cook in the kitchens of the French court during the 100 years war that we’ve just spoken about. He started off as a humble kitchen boy and ascended the ranks until he was head chef under Philip VI. 6.
This dude is considered one of the first truly professional master chefs and died at the ripe old age of 80.
Anyway, Taillevent was the author of a cookbook named Le Viandier, arguably the most influential French cookery book from the Middle Ages.
So influential in fact that it’s argued that this book was the foundation upon which the French gastronomic tradition was founded. It’s safe to say that Taillevent is a big deal and has had a lasting effect on world cuisine.
It would be cool to do a separate series about influential food persons from history in the future as they all led pretty interesting lives and their recipes alone are interesting to read over. Let us know, listener if that’s something you’d like to hear in the future.
But surely a chef so influential and serving in the crown court isn’t spending his time serving up stale bread soaked in eggs right?
Within the Le Viandier there is a recipe for tostées dorées, or “golden toasts”. Here is the recipe roughly translated to English:
Toasted golden bread, take hard white bread and cut it into square toasts and roast them together on the gravel; and have moyeulx d’oeufz batuz and wrap them very well in iceulx moyeulx; and to have good healthy chault and to brown them in it on the fire as long as they are nice and well browned and then to put them inside the paelle and put on platz, and success on.
Not a great translation but you get the idea. He doesn’t use milk for his recipe, just eggs and butter.
But he’s called it tostées Dorees, not French Toast. So where the F is that name coming from?
Well, let’s get to it.
A Wild French Toast Appears
Now that we’ve traversed the murky waters of Aliter Dulcia, Lost Bread, Toastee Dorees and the Poor Knights of Windsor, you’ll be glad to know we’ve finally entered the age of the French Toast.
It was in the 17th Century that the term French toast first appeared in England.
To be precise it was the year 1660. Which in the grand scheme of things was a pretty significant fucking year.
So significant in fact that historian Ian Mortimer said it is only eclipsed by the events in 1066 in terms of the sheer impact on ordinary English folks’ lives.
So what was happening?
Well, my friend, it was basically the Empire Strikes Back.
1660 was the year in which the Monarchy, more specifically Charles II, was restored to power. Before 1660 there was no such thing as a king of England. England was ruled, thanks to Oliver Cromwell, by a protector of the commonwealth rather than a monarch.
But thanks to Ollie’s death in 1658 and his son’s lack of sway with the military a power vacuum had opened. Who would fill this vacuum you ask?
Well buckle up, it’s.
ENGLAND: EPISODE V The Crown Strikes Back
The return to England of the prince, Charles Stuart, in May 1660 and his accession meant the re-establishment of the monarchy and a different form of government.
This return brought with it all sorts of radical changes that would have a profound effect of peoples lives up and down the country.
We could probably spend about 3 days all told going into further detail about this but this episode is about French Toast and French Toast we will talk about god damn it.
All you need to know is that times are a changin.
So the first appearance of French Toast was in a book called The Accomplisht Cook. Published by a professional cook by the name of Robert May. An auctioneer by the name of Charles Hanson is reported as saying Robert May:
May would have been very much the Gordon Ramsay of his day, something of a celebrity chef.
Probably without the swearing though yeah?
So the book itself is organised into 24 broad sections and jam-packed full of stuff. Stuff like how to make haggis, rice pudding, three ways to make a bisk, bone marrow pies and more.
But we are interested in his French Toast recipe. His recipe actually leaves out the eggs and milk and instead, suggests soaking the pre-toasted bread in a solution of wine, sugar and orange juice.
He called it Big Bob’s Boozy Toast.
Joking he didn’t. But he should have. He titled it French Toast of course.
Now I know what you are thinking.
This is all very well and fucking good Andy, but this is an English Cookbook, not a French cookbook. So why the damn is it called French Toast?!
Well, child. Sit yourself down, have a mouthful of listerine and I’ll tell ya one of the potential reasons for the name.
The theory goes that the “French” part of French Toast is not derived from the country but is instead a reference to the old Irish verb “To French”.
“To French” in old Irish means “To Slice”.
Hence “French Toast” Is “Sliced Toast”.
Now I wish I could tell you that’s 100% the reason. But I can’t and it ain’t.
As we will see in a moment, there are actually a few different thoughts & myths on how French Toast gained its name
MURICA's French Toast
As with anything food related, French Toast didn’t really take off and gain mass popularity until it landed on American shores.
The Americans just have a way of glorifying calories that the rest of us could only dream of.
French toast is thought to have gained a foothold on American when, after the Irish potato famine (1845-1852), Irish settlers escaped to the United States and Canada seeking a better quality of life.
With them, they brought their culture, their language and of course, their culinary habits.
In 1871 the phrase “French Toast” first appeared in The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. Now I couldn’t actually find much information on what else this book had in it or what it said about French Toast, but by just the name alone I’m imagining a healthy sized tome with bacon for bookmarks and burger grease on each page.
So yeah, this story makes sense. The Irish brought it with them and it grew in America from there.
But what if I were to tell you there is another theory.
A theory full of poor grammar and limited knowledge.
Well there is.
And it involved one Mr French, Joseph French.
The year is 1724 and we are in Albany, New York. Mr French is an innkeeper looking to please his patrons and earn their repeat custom.
He’s in the kitchen, looking to conjure up something tasty but cheap enough to make some dollar on. What does he do? He whips up a batch of golden bread fried bread that was first soaked in eggs and milk.
What does he call this wonderful creation?
Well he names it after himself of course.
But because he is but a humble innkeeper and grammarly wasn’t around back then, he makes a mistake in the naming.
Instead of calling it “French’s Toast” he mistakenly called it French Toast leaving out the required apostrophe.
And the rest his history, as they say.
Now I for one, think this story is complete rubbish.
I think Mr French just fucking loved French Toast so much that he wanted to be involved in its history somehow. Or he wanted to give his Inn a Unique Selling Point.
One of the two.
The Irish immigrant story is far more reasonable to believe.
Wrapping Up Your French Toast
For me, the most convincing explanation of the name French Toast is the following:
Something called “French” makes it seem fancier. It allows chefs/innkeepers and everyone in between to add one or two pounds to its price.
As Stephon Block, editor in chief of the kitchen project explains:
“We have an admiration for French cuisine, which we consider to be elaborate and gastronomic. And that’s probably why this dish was named that way. It’s just marketing. The name sounds good and the French adjective gives it a high-quality connotation. There’s no chance that ‘Lost Bread’ could have worked. And since the dish was successful and the recipe was easy, the name spread.”
This to me sounds like the most likely of origins for the name. People wanted to make stale bread, dipped in eggs and milk sound fancy and still turn a profit on it.
So that’s it. The history and origins of French Toast.
A dish seemingly ancient in origin which hasn’t evolved since its inception. A simple, yet delicious dish made of 3 core ingredients that almost every culture around the world would consider staples.
French Toast, the alligator of the food world.
Ever since I started cooking I’ve been fascinated by how different people’s techniques are and how they best utilise the ingredients around them. Even the person living next door will have their own unique way of frying an egg or cooking a salmon fillet.
This fascination led me on a journey across the globe to discover the countless practices and traditions the world of cooking has to offer. I thought you’d enjoy and find value in sharing that journey with me so I created Cooked Best!