I used to think I liked French toast the way my mom made it. She would dunk bread into the egg batter so quickly that it was really more like *showing* the bread to the eggs. Her French toast, then, was truthfully better described as battered bread – there were distinct layers to it, egg-bread-egg, as if it were a cross-section of an archaeological dig.
For years I ate it happily, after watching her prepare it with a careful eye. She’d crack the eggs into a flat pie plate, add a splash of milk and a pinch of salt, and beat it all together with chopsticks. Then she would take up the square white bread, hold it aloft in readiness, and turn to me. “You have to be fast,” she’d say. “Nothing can ruin your French toast more completely than if you really let all that egg soak in there. The bread’ll fall apart.” I’d nod, my eyes gleaming with avarice as I fiddled with the syrup bottle in anticipation. Flash! And flip! And into the pan. The toast would sizzle as it hit the hot butter. Within minutes, my brother and I would be leaning over our laden plates, eyes closed in beatific joy as we inhaled the smell of a wonderful weekend in the making.
When I got into high school and then college, sometimes the preparation of weekend breakfasts would fall to me. I dutifully prepared French toast just the way mom always did – assembling the necessary ingredients quickly, whisking the bread through the egg batter, and frying up platefuls of crispy, sizzling toast. My dad, who abhorred sweetness with any kind of protein, always skipped the syrup, rolling his eyes at us in derision as we poured it on thickly. He would slather butter onto his French toast and devour it as a savoury treat.
At some point, I must have been watching Nick at Night instead of writing a paper for college, because I caught an episode of “Family Ties” long after the show had actually gone off the air. Alex P. Keaton was telling little brother Andy how to prepare French toast. “First,” he squeaked in that charming Michael-J-Fox way, “you start your preparations a day ahead of time, because you have to let the bread soak in the egg batter for at LEAST 24 hours.” I wrinkled my nose at the TV. “Ugh. Mush!” The rest of Alex’s lecture went unnoticed as I marveled that anyone could actually let the bread sit in the batter for any longer than a second or two. Shuddering in distaste, I eventually turned off the TV to focus on my homework.
It was years later when some small voice made itself heard on a fateful weekend. There I was, looking down at all the familiar accoutrement of the French toast ritual, when I thought, “But really – how mushy would it get?” I decided to do a little experiment. Teeming with guilt that I was departing from the method my mother had taken such care to instill within me (those Catholic mothers know what they’re doing with the guilt thing), I purposefully prepared the egg batter first before preheating my frying pan. Then I dropped the bread into the egg batter and stepped back. Turning my back on the plate to avoid the temptation of snatching the bread right back out again, I busied myself with the pan. When it was finally ready, I turned back to the pie plate to look at the bread, half-expecting to see that it had dissolved completely – but it looked fine. I had to use a little more care getting it into the frying pan, but once there, it fried up with no ill effects – it didn’t lose its shape, take any longer to cook, or splatter any more than it normally did. Somewhat disappointed in this seemingly normal production, I slid the toast onto a plate, cooled it off with a little maple syrup, and prepared to enjoy a distressingly routine brunch.
How wrong I was. Once I’d cut through the toast with the side of my fork and taken the first bite, I knew in an instant that I was on to something. The crispiness of the toast – yes, that was familiar and quite delicious. But the inside of the toast – there dwelled a creamy, custardy heaven I never would have fathomed. Somehow, the bread itself had been transformed into a smooth and fluffy filling of sorts for my crusty French toast shell. I ate my breakfast ecstatically, unwilling to take even a short break to call my mother and tell her about my discovery. (When I finally did call her, she was not impressed.)
From then on, the French toast ritual has never been the same. Not only do I relish the chance to let the bread soak in the batter, I add flavors with glee, experiment fearlessly with ingredients. Cinnamon makes its way into the batter regularly, as does vanilla. I’ve departed from white bread to try my hand at croissant French toast, or cinnamon raisin bread French toast. I saw recently that there’s a restaurant in Austin that does a carrot cake French toast I’m dying to try. But my favorite thing about the ritual now is that it’s mine. I finally woke up and smelled what I was cooking, departing from the way I’d been told to do something, instead finding my own path.
Since then, I’ve taken stock of a lot of things I picked up along the way to today, to see if they’re really mine. Some things still fit comfortably, whereas others suffered the same fate as mom’s French toast methods. The looking, though – that’s what’s important.