Breakfast, Brunch, & Milk Toast

Breakfast! We (should) eat it every day. Whether your idea of breakfast involves inhaling a granola bar on the way to class in the morning or sitting down for homemade pancakes and bacon, the modern concept of breakfast is very different from how it once was. In the Middle Ages, eating too early in the day was considered to be an act of gluttony, and was thought to be sinful. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution of the 19th century that breakfast became more normalized, as factory workers needed the energy. Later in the 19th century, as a result of this normalization, breakfast became stylish for the very wealthy, some going so far as to construct rooms specifically for breakfasting, which tended to be an elaborate, multi-course affair. In 1894, Dr. John Harvey Kellog’s invention of the cornflake changed breakfast again. Around the same time period, toasters became more popular, and breakfast was suddenly incredibly convenient. In the 1930s, Bisquick pancake mix and waffle irons entered the cooking scene, which timed nicely with the post Depression/early WWII-induced increase of women in the workplace. Today, Americans still prioritize convenience when it comes to breakfast; 40% of millennials say that cereal is “inconvenient” because of the cleanup involved. On a given weekday, people want something they can eat quickly that doesn’t involve much preparation or cleanup.

The modern idea of brunch as its own meal, separate from breakfast, took a little longer to hit the scene. Since the late 1800s and early 1900s, wealthy men have enjoyed a “hunt breakfast” or late post morning hunting trip meal. College students (which, at the time, were wealthy white men) often ate a leisurely meal on days when they woke up late. Around the 1920s and 30s, special occasion brunches, often for Easter and Christmas, had become regular. Then, upscale New York restaurants began to develop brunch menus. By the 1980s, chains like IHOP and Denny’s made brunch more accessible to less wealthy folk, as well as people who didn’t live in culinary hubs like New York. The way we eat breakfast, both at home and in restaurants, has shifted a lot throughout the years.

The menu I chose comes from the San Francisco Overland Limited, a luxury train that ran from San Francisco to Chicago, from the year 1920. This train began its route in 1887 and ended in 1962. The train was known for its high-class amenities, which ranged from quality meals to in-train barbers and manicurists. The head chef of the railroad company was a man named Otto Reiss, a German who was somewhat legendary for his culinary work for celebrities and royalty in major cities all over. In an interview with The Southern Pacific Bulletin, the international influence on his culinary style is evident; he lists favorite recipes like “stuffed filet of salmon Romanoff” and “Turkish dolmas.” 

What intrigued me most about my menu selection, however, was perhaps the most plain-sounding item listed: milk toast. Milk and toast? It sounds almost stupidly simple. And while the ingredients themselves really are that uncomplicated, the dish as a whole carries a lot more significance than I anticipated. Food writer MFK Fisher writes,

“And then there is plain old Milk Toast! It has been a source of reassurance and moral and physical strength for hundreds of years, I am sure, and like many such friends, it perhaps does its best work when eaten in solitude. It seems to soothe the nerves and muscles and mind altogether. The easiest place to eat it, of course, is at the kitchen table instead of, for instance, alone in a dining room. To make a restful, nourishing, delicious Milk Toast, on a cold night or any time when solitude seems to be indicated, warm a generous bowl while making two slices of toast. The bread should be firm and hearty but not strongly flavored as is rye or pumpernickel. Warm two cups of creamy milk, just to the simmer point. Butter the toast generously and cut into cubes. Season the milk with salt, pepper, and paprika if desired. Put the bits of buttery toasted bread in the warm bowl, pour the seasoned milk over them, and walk gently to wherever you have decided to feel right in your skin.”

Although milk toast is no longer an item you’ll find on restaurant menus, and though the average young person today has never heard of it, milk toast has been a comfort food of sorts for generations. Like most comfort foods, it is made of simple, fairly inexpensive ingredients and can be customized in any number of ways. The blandness of milk toast actually inspired a comic strip character called Caspar Milquetoast, a mild-mannered, nervous old man. The comic was influential enough that the word “milquetoast,” meaning a timid and feeble person, was added to the dictionary. Milk toast doesn’t always have to be bland, however; MFK Fisher’s version is more savory, calling for salt, pepper, and paprika, while the version I made used cinnamon and sugar. Milk toast was also a dish considered to be easy on the stomach, making it good sick people food. All these qualities give milk toast a nourishing, personal, wholesome quality, perfect for mental and physical healing. 

Let’s eat! I made milk toast in two ways- first the traditional way and the second a more modern adaptation. I based my toasts off of these two recipes: https://food52.com/recipes/54262-milk-toast http://willowbirdbaking.com/2018/02/19/milk-toast/

The recipe I used for the traditional milk toast came from Food52 and was based on the dish that MFK Fisher describes. I toasted two slices of brioche and then pan-fried them in butter as I heated some whole milk. When the toasts were done, I sprinkled them with cinnamon and sugar, sliced them into cubes, and poured the milk over the top. First bite: stupid good. Brioche and butter is obviously delicious, and combined with warm milk and cinnamon it has a taste reminiscent of french toast or Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. Second bite: extremely soggy. I think for this to be an enjoyable breakfast, you have to use a more substantial bread, and you have to eat it very quickly. I think brioche could still work, but I honestly might toast it twice (on a lower setting, the goal is to dry it out not burn it) before pan-frying. Better yet, milk toast would be a great way to use up the remainders of a dried out loaf of bread. The food preservation techniques practiced even just a few generations back were not nearly as advanced or efficient, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this dish was created as a use for old bread. Plenty of other milky, bready foods, like bread pudding or French toast, often call for dried-out bread as well. Here is a photo, featuring Bentley the dog who desperately wanted a snack.

My second toast creation I was a lot more proud of. For this one, I made a very simple milk-based vanilla pudding, thickened with butter and flour. I toasted some white sourdough and then pan-fried the slices in butter before spooning some pudding (featuring a sprinkle of cinnamon) on top. This one, obviously, was very good. It’s toast and pudding. The sourdough held up really nicely and didn’t go soggy at all, it probably would have been a better bread candidate than the brioche in the traditional recipe. While I can definitely see the appeal of both toast styles for breakfast, it left me feeling gross. I’m not even gluten or dairy intolerant, but a breakfast of white bread and copious amounts of dairy and sugar is not my idea of an excellent start to the day. 

Beyond just milk toast, the San Francisco Overland Limited offers a variety of other dishes, most of which are pretty recognizable. There are quite a few types of fruit available, as well as eggs cooked any style you’d like, including jelly omelets, or omelettes au confiture, something that seems absolutely inedible to me. According to the NYPL menu database, these omelets haven’t been featured on a menu since the 70s, but recipes for these odd little creations pop up all over the place. In addition, the train offers kraut juice, another seemingly bizarre choice. Shockingly, this beverage didn’t do too well commercially, and it only appeared on menus from 1920-1940. Though fermented cabbage water is objectively horrifying, it’s actually really good for you. It contains a lot of vitamins and probiotics, and a Dr. John Jay Terrell, who died in 1922 credited raw sauerkraut consumption for the saving of his patients, who fought in the Civil War. Some modern studies have even shown that it can reduce growth in cancer cells and be an effective weight-loss aid. Bottoms up, I guess.

Resources

New York Public Library.  San Francisco Overland Limited. 1920.
http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/29984

Daniels, Sarah E. “Milk Toast Recipe.” Food52, 9 May 2016, food52.com/recipes/54262-milk-toast.

Garber, Megan. “A Brief History of Breakfast, the Most Contentious Meal of the Day.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 20 June 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/06/breakfast-the-most-contentious-meal-of-the-day/487220/.

Herman, Alison. “An Illustrated History of Brunch.” First We Feast, First We Feast, 1 June 2018, firstwefeast.com/eat/2016/01/an-illustrated-history-of-brunch.

“Instructing Chef Has Picturesque Career.” Souther Pacific Bulletin, vol. 7, 11-12, pp. 14–15.

Petre, Alina. “8 Surprising Benefits of Sauerkraut.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 1 Mar. 2017, http://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-sauerkraut#section4.

Reardon, Joan, and M. F. K. Fisher. A Stew or a Story: an Assortment of Short Works by M.F.K. Fisher. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006.

Ruble, Julie. “Milk Toast.” Willow Bird Baking, 19 Feb. 2018, willowbirdbaking.com/2018/02/19/milk-toast/.

Sedacca, Matthew. “Why You’re Seeing Breakfast Freaking Everywhere.” Eater, Eater, 30 May 2017, http://www.eater.com/2017/5/30/15702210/restaurant-breakfast-trend-business.