The Ancient Roman Origins Of French Toast

French toast is French, right? It's in the name, after all! Well, it would seem that French toast's modern moniker is a reference, specifically, to its present-day iteration. In the 1600s, slices of bread that had been saturated with orange juice, sugar, and wine first came to be called French toast, according to MasterClass. Since then, it's become the breakfast treat we all know and love today.

However, the origins of French toast go back further than just the 17th century. Before it was French toast, "lost bread" (or "pain perdu" in French) was a term used to refer to bread that was being used as dessert even after the bread was no longer fresh. Both the English and the French ate this lost bread throughout the Middle Ages (via MasterClass). Why was "pain perdu" so popular in these two European regions? Likely because the recipe had roots in an empire that once, per World History Encyclopedia, ruled over their lands.

A first-century recipe

The first "French" toast recipe appeared in a Roman cookbook titled "Apicius" (via MasterClass). This Roman cookbook might be the oldest in the world. Also known as "De Re Coquinaria," this cookbook is attributed to a foodie named Apicius, per Open Culture. However, there were several individuals of his name who existed throughout the Empire's long span, so the author's exact identity is uncertain. The earliest copy of his cookbook currently known to exist is from the fifth century, although its original copy is suspected to hail from the first century. Since then, the book has undergone a myriad of notating, translating, and updating.

In Apicius' text, readers were instructed to slice bread, take off the crust, soak the bread in eggy milk, fry it in oil, and smother it in honey, as translated by Project Gutenberg. There are references to toasted pieces of bread, but not explicitly in that recipe. Instead, toast is referenced in dishes like milk toast and roast suckling pig with honey. Naturally, the word "French" doesn't appear in the original text, since its etymology traces back to the 13th century, per Etymonline. Still, while this ancient Roman recipe isn't necessarily toast and obviously isn't French, it also quite clearly has the spirit of what we today call French toast: Fried bread that's eggy, milky, and sugary. When in Rome ... people ate French toast! Sort of.