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Is French Toast Really French?

Three pieces of french toast are topped with butter and syrup and sit on a white plate.

There are some foods that are definitely french—boeuf bourguignon, crepes, and soufflé. You might be tempted to add French toast to that list. After all, it’s called French toast. But is this beloved breakfast staple as French as its name suggests?

Is French Toast French?

Much of the world is guilty of perpetrating a French cuisine conspiracy where many non-French foods are dubbed such. But the French themselves are quite honest, like calling french fries pomme frites (literally, fried apples but pomme de terre is the French for potatoes so it’s just been abbreviated in a way that confuses everyone) and croissants are considered a viennoiserie—a Viennese pastry.

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It’s the same with French toast. The French, at least in their own language, lay no claims to its origins. They call it pain perdu or lost bread. The name seemingly comes from the use of stale bread—it’s bread that’s been lost to all other uses.

So, I think we can safely mark French toast off as a dish that’s not actually French. So where does it come from?

Where Does French Toast Come From?

Every dish needs a good, funny, origin myth, and French toast is no exception.

Supposedly, Joseph French, an innkeeper in Albany, New York, created the recipe in 1724. He meant to advertise it as “French’s Toast” but because his knowledge of grammar was lacking, he skipped the apostrophe and just called it “French Toast.” The dish proved popular, the name stuck, and thus, French toast.

Of course, this is all unverifiable and doesn’t fit with any of the established facts.

French toast—or at least the recipes for it—has been around a lot longer than France the country. The first appears in Apicus, a collection of Roman Empire recipes from the 4th or 5th Century. They were supposedly written by a Roman noble in the 2nd Century—but that’s unlikely to be true.

The recipe for aliter dulci (another sweet dish) calls for the cook to “slice fine white bread, remove the crust, and break it into rather large pieces which soak in milk and beaten egg, fry in oil, cover with honey and serve.” That sounds very close to what you get in IHOP today.

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Over the years, French toast has gone by different names in different places. In 14th-century Germany, it was known as arme ritter or poor knights—a name that also crops up in English, the Nordic languages, and modern German. In 14th Century France, it was called tostées dorées (golden toast). Today, it’s called the wonderfully descriptive “eggy bread” in England.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words “French toast” were first used in print in 1660 in a book called The Accomplisht Cook. That recipe, instead of using eggs, called for the bread to be soaked in a mix of wine, sugar, and orange juice.

Not quite the same as the modern dish, but close enough for there to be a link—and that does sound like a killer brunch food anyway.

So, Why Is French Toast Called French Toast?

So, the recipe for French toast is almost 2,000 years old and the name French toast, is about 400 years old. Who invented it and how the name came about is now thoroughly lost to history, though we can say it’s certainly not because it’s from France.

My favorite theory for why the name French toast has been so enduring, especially in America, is simple: it’s because it sounds good. American culture has long had a high opinion of French cuisine. Enterprising chefs could make a simple dish sound fancier, and add an extra few cents onto the price tag, just by calling it French toast rather than eggy bread.

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The next time you’re planning brunch or heading out to grab it with friends, you’ll know that the French toast you see on the menu is not, in fact, French.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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