The Wagon Train Coffee Shop is a small diner, in a one strip, one gas station town, in Truckee, CA. The walls display license plates, and framed photos of local football teams and a sign saying, “Sorry Complaint Box is Full”. The waitresses are amiable and efficient, big-boned “girls”, who tuck their pens behind their ears and shout orders in shorthand, “Dry wheat to five!”. The coffee is served in ceramic mugs so thick you have to work to get your lips around the rim and the jam sits stacked on the tables, molded into white, plastic, single-serve sized packs.
I was at the Wagon Train Coffee Shop one recent snowy afternoon, and had the best French Toast I have ever sunk a fork into. It sat solidly in the middle of my plate, one big slab of sourdough sponge, as thick and wide as a T-bone. It had been given a leisurely soak in its eggy bath, so much so that large bits of fried egg were still clinging to its sides. It’s surface displayed a perfectly balanced topography of yellow and brown.
The maple syrup arrived in a flimsy aluminum jug. It is delivered in bulk to the diner and dispensed from a giant coffee urn behind the counter. (It was probably not pure Vermont sap. This was not the kind of place that cared about that.) I drizzled a thin stream over the top of my French Toast. It was gradually sucked in.
There was nothing fancy about this French Toast, there was not even cinnamon on hand. This was practical French Toast, stripped of pretension, perfect in its simplicity, looking simply for an eager mouth and an appetite, which I had after four days of skiing.
There’s no question as to why French Toast is a comfort food– we are hard wired to derive pleasure from sugar and fat. Our first food from the breast is rich in both, the protein from the eggs fills us up and the warm, plush bread is easy to chew and digest. French Toast delivers what our primitive-selves desire: maximum energy with minimum effort.
Knowing I would never be able to recreate the Wagon Train experience at my home, two thousand miles east of the Western frontier, I instead created an entirely different New York City variation – an urban, slightly thinner, more accessorized version of Truckee French Toast. Check it out here. (Warning: If you’re a French Toast purist, beware – I took great liberties with a time-honored tradition. This heretical act was done in the name of health (without, I think, compromising taste), but if you’re a traditionalist don’t try this at home.)
Interestingly, the French don’t eat French Toast – they eat “pain perdu”, (or lost bread, meaning stale bread, salvaged by soaking it in egg and milk), the English eat “Eggy Bread”, the Hungarians, “Bread with Fur” (I don’t think “fur” when I see French Toast but then again, I’m not Hungarian), and the Germans, “Poor Knights” (the lowly cavalry had limited access to fresh bread). The practice of soaking stale bread actually dates to the 4th or 5th Century with the Romans (from whom the French plucked the idea) – so for proper attribution, call it “Roman Toast”.
Your tricks or tips for making perfect French Toast? Any variations you swear by? Any diners where you’ve had French Toast so good, it’s worth planning a trip around?
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