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What French Toast Taught Me About ‘American’ Food

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Why it doesn't matter if you prefer breakfast sweet or savory.

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I didn’t know people ate French toast sweet until I was 14 years old. I grew up eating it salty-hot, thick slices of challah battered in peppery eggs and milk, then browned in a pan and cut on the bias and plated with ketchup and sharp cheddar. It was arguably the dish of my childhood, the thing I ate most frequently, because French toast is filling and comforting and — as they say — as easy as the Sunday mornings on which it was usually served, and also because it was something my parents ate when they were growing up years before and a couple continents away.

My dad’s mother would flip white bread — more readily available than rotis in Kabul, where they lived at the time — in milky eggs, and my mom’s mom in Bombay would do the same. In Kabul my family called it unda bread, eggs with bread, and in Bombay it was just French toast, maybe due to the British influence, but the dish was the same — eggs and milk and bread, sometimes with spices on top of the salt and pepper and occasionally with chopped green or chile peppers mixed into the batter — and always served with "sauce," that ubiquitous name for spicy tomato ketchup in India.

French toast in America was supposed to be served with syrup and sweet slices of fruit.

I ate it how they ate it, because that’s what you do. And then after a sleepover one day, my friend’s mother called our group of girlfriends out onto the back deck to eat. Sitting there was a platter of French toast dusted with powdered sugar and laid out with fruit and a plastic bottle of syrup.

Sugar runs rampant across India, but it’s very rarely featured in breakfast dishes, a preference that carried over into my childhood but a fact that didn’t really strike me until I came home that day and felt uncomfortable asking my parents if they knew French toast in America was supposed to be served with syrup and sweet slices of fruit. Either they knew and chose to eat it the way they preferred, which made us different-by-choice from all my friends — a tough thing for an second-generation kid to grapple with — or they just didn't know, in which case I was going to have to ask myself what else I may have missed the memo on.

This felt like the start of something new and almost tenuous, and slowly I grew used to the idea that maybe how I thought about food was wrong. I trained myself to eat before parties and to ask for special meals before field trips and Girl Scout camps and then brace for those "special meals" to be afterthought sandwiches (shredded lettuce, limp tomato, cold American cheese slice) or plates full of sides. I was a shy vegetarian living in the South in a time where ham hocks and chunks of bacon were slipped into food without reservation: I learned quickly to ask if things were made with pork stock, or fried in beef fat and was horrified to hear how casually inconclusive nutrition labels can be. It wasn't easy.

Spanish torrijas. Photo: Mariontxa/Shutterstock

The questions of authenticity and appropriation come up a lot when we talk about food — what is real, what are we using without fully understanding (or caring) where it came from, or why? — but that sleepover was one of the first times that I really had to think about assimilation. At 14, right at the start of high school, did I want to ask for something else, or question the host, or be marked as the girl who ate French toast with ketchup if everyone else ate it sweet? No. I was a freshman. I wanted to fit in, not be labeled as the girl who ate weird things. Now I eat French toast sweet or savory, without thinking too much about it, the way sometimes you want to eat a grilled cheese and sometimes you want a PB&J, the way you see people switch seamlessly between languages. But for a long time I held that initial moment of confusion close, as a kind of crossroads: a time I could have said something to differentiate myself but didn’t.

For a long time I held that initial moment of confusion close, as a kind of crossroads. Now I know better.

Now I know better — or at least I know that there's not a right way or a wrong way to prepare a dish, especially one with such a varied history. French toast isn’t American, or Indian, and it isn’t French either, so who’s to say that it has to be served in a specific manner? Known in France not just as toast but as pain perdu, or "lost bread," the dish is essentially a way to revive aging bread by soaking the stale slices in milk and eggs to make them more palatable and prevent food waste. The first known recorded version, from the Roman Apicus in the fourth or fifth century, is labeled simply as aliter dulcia, or "another sweet dish," and calls for fine white bread (crustless!) soaked in milk, fried in oil, and covered in honey to sweeten it up.

The syrup-strewn dish been popularized across the world, from the deep-fried Hong Kong-style toast to torrija, served traditionally during Lent in Spain. But if sweet isn’t your thing, savory versions aren’t really as uncommon as American diner menus may lead one to believe. There’s dim pauruti ("egg bread"), Bengalis’ take with chopped onions, peppers, and chiles mixed into the batter. There’s bundás kenyér — directly translated as "bread with a fur," but meaning that it’s coated — a Hungarian version served frequently with cheese. And there’s even the classic Monte Cristo, which swaps the day-old bread for a ham and cheese sandwich.

More recently, restaurants have taken to turning all kinds of things into French toast, from babka at Russ & Daughters Cafe in New York and banana bread at Atlanta’s West Egg to slices of sweet onion brioche with chicken on the menu at Chicago’s Little Goat and a Thai tea-laden option at Ngam. It’s easy to scoff at these novelty dishes, put on menus possibly only with the intention of intriguing customers into ordering a $14 plate of egg-soaked slices of bread.

But no matter how ridiculous the combinations might seem, they may bring comfort to someone who finds them familiar, or speak to traditions, or both, like the French toast that I crave on Sunday mornings no matter where I am or who I'm with. And isn't that what dining's all about?