What’s in a name? With the dish sometimes known as French toast—celebrated every year on November 28—not much.
In France, the breakfast food’s name is “pain perdu,” or “lost bread,” possibly because it uses stale and otherwise wasted slices to make a delicious dish. Elsewhere in space-time, it’s been called eggy bread, German toast, poor knights’ pudding and Bombay toast, according to the South Florida Reporter — and that’s not an exhaustive list.
Its earliest mention by the name of French toast, according to Simon Thomas for Oxford Dictionaries, comes from 1660. “That preparation, however, left out the eggs, in favor of soaking pre-toasted bread in a solution of wine, sugar and orange juice,” writes Brendan Koerner for Slate about the recipe that appears in The Accomplisht Cook.
An earlier mention of a somewhat similar dish comes in the Forme of Cury, a 14th-century English cookbook compiled for Richard II. That recipe is called Payn Fondew. “The recipe called for bread fried in grease or oil, soaked in “rede wyne” and cooked with raisins. It was finished with sugar and spices, and garnished with candied white coriander seeds.
Another cookbook, The English Huswife (1615), contained a recipe for “the best panperdy” that used eggs but no milk. “... Take a dozen eggs, and break them, and beat them very well, then put unto them cloves, mace, cinamon, nutmeg, and a good store of sugar, with as much salt as shall season it: then take a manchet [an expensive bread], and cut it into thick slices like toasts,” it reads.
The earliest mention of the dish comes from a fourth-century Roman cookbook attributed to Apicius, under the name “Aliter Dulcia” (“another sweet dish”). That recipe instructs its maker to “Break fine white bread, crust removed, into rather large pieces which soak in milk and beaten egg, fry in oil, cover with honey and serve.”
The dish itself is as flexible as its many names suggest, giving birth to many recipes even now, from the decadent (champagne lobster-topped French Toast with caviar, anybody?) to the seasonal (Pumpkin Spice French Toast—perfect for latte season).
Its most recent name is probably Freedom Toast, the name that it bore in the cafeterias of the House of Representatives from 2003 to 2006, according to Mental Floss. But what’s most interesting about French toast is that despite its thrifty origin story it was probably always expensive food, using pricey ingredients like white breads and sugar, not to mention spices. Even the fact we have recipes dating back to Roman times for the dish suggests it was at least a middle-class food—after all, peasants probably weren’t the target market for cookbooks. Think about that the next time your brunch receipt shows up.