Break a slice of fine white bread, crust removed, into rather large pieces. Soak in milk and beaten eggs. Fry in oil, cover in honey, and serve. (Apicius, 4th Century)
Leavened or not, bagels or brioche, pita or chappati, Wonderbread or challah, every culture has its bread. And where there is bread, there are leftovers. One of the most popular ways of using up those leftovers is French toast. French toast goes under a myriad of names: eggy bread in England, Bombay toast in India, arme ritter in German. Curiously, in the US it's French toast. In France, it's pain perdu, or lost bread.
No one is quite sure where the term French toast came from. Perhaps it was the Normans who brought their medieval version, tostees dorees, over from France when they invaded England.
Here are two popular stories – unlikely but more colourful. The first tells how in 1724 an innkeeper named Joseph French served up a batch of the toast. Joseph hadn't got the hang of apostrophes and the name stuck. The second tale claims that French toast was called German Toast until World War I, when as a patriotic snub to the Kaiser it was renamed French Toast.
But whatever you call it, and wherever it came from, the idea is much the same. Soak the bread in liquid, (milk and egg, wine or even juice) flavoured with whatever takes your fancy – sugar, salt, vanilla, cinnamon – or back in 14th Century England, candied coriander seeds, and fry.
Despite its frugal image, French bread was originally a fancy dessert for the wealthy. White bread, sugar and spices may be commonplace today, but for most of history they were expensive and available only to the moneyed. Everyone else had to make do with a dark, chewy whole-wheat bread.
The earliest known recipe for French toast can be found in Apicius, a Roman cookbook from the late 4th or early 5th century. This was a cookbook for the aristocracy and contained recipes with the finest of ingredients – like white bread. Not only did the recipe call for fine white bread, which was expensive enough, but it instructs the cook to remove the crusts. Evidence indeed, that only the rich could afford French toast. Poor people wouldn't do anything as wasteful as cutting off the crusts.