French Toast As Served On Five Railroads

by Diane Duane
French toast with berries

(I was hunting around for the below quote from James D. Porterfield’s classic cookbook/research book Dining By Rail, and found that its original online location had vanished. This post appears at my Tumblr as well, but because of the change to data management permissions over there, I’ve reposted it here.)

(PS: this is a real passion for me. When Peter and I are on the rails over on this side of things, we always head straight to the dining car and spend most of the trip there. The windows are bigger, for one thing. But the people-watching is also superior, and the food on some European railways – especially on the SBB, the Swiss National Railways – is always at least really good, and often superb, even in these days of cutbacks. Anyway, I collect old railway recipes from both sides of the Atlantic, and cook them when I can. These are fabulous — especially the Santa Fe’s recipe — and the Northern Pacific’s dedicated French toast bread is worth making at any time.)

A predominantly male ridership, in a time when dietary health concerns were not voiced, assured beefsteak its perennial place as the most popular food item on dining-car menus of transcontinental trains. Aside from the quality of the cut, however (where the Union Pacific, with its ready access to the stockyards at Omaha, Nebraska, surely prevailed), distinction could only be established with cosmetics. Thus, the Cotton Belt Route topped its steaks with a pimento cut to the distinctive shape of its logo, and the Union Pacific – leaving nothing to chance – served its steaks with a large fried onion ring, unique for its coating of potato flour and potato meal.


In meeting the demand for the second-most-requested item, apple pie, the railroads played up whatever apple of the season was grown by their shippers. Beyond that rather important distinction, only a pie’s crust and toppings could differ, as the nutmeg sauce that topped Fred Harvey’s French apple pies and the sweet pastry crust of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad attest.


It fell, then, to French toast to become the most popular menu item that was both common to the various railroads, yet creatively distinctive. And as the samples below demonstrate, chefs responded with some dazzling variations on the classic formula of stale bread soaked in an egg-and-milk wash, then fried. These frequently requested recipes were distributed to patrons to share with others, giving special meaning to the concept of “word-of-mouth” marketing. The Northern Pacific Railway went so far as to develop a flavorful bread used for its French toast, one suitable for use with all the recipes provided.



You’ll need: large mixing bowl, medium mixing bowl

two 8″ x 4″ bread pans

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

Preparation time: 21h hours

Yield: 2 loaves

  • 2 pkgs. active dry yeast
  • 3 Tbsp. sugar
  • ¾ cup warm water
  • 1 & ½ cups warm milk
  • 1 Tbsp. dry malt
  • 2 Tbsp. shortening
  • 5-5 ½ cups all purpose flour
  • 1 Tbsp. salt

In large bowl, combine yeast with sugar and warm water and let stand for 8-10 minutes. Add milk, salt, dry malt, and shortening. Mix at low speed until blended.

Add 3 cups of flour and beat thoroughly. Using a wooden spoon, gradually stir in enough of remaining flour to make a moderately stiff dough. On floured surface, knead dough until smooth and elastic. Place in greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 40 minutes. Punch down dough, divide in half, and let rest for 10 minutes. Form loaves and place in the greased bread pans. Let rise again until doubled, about 35 minutes. Bake for 40 minutes.

For the best French toast, allow bread to become stale by storing in a paper bag at room temperature for 2-3 days. If bread is still moist when sliced, expose each side to air for up to an hour before using. Slice as directed by the individual recipes.



You’ll need: shallow dish, large skillet, Heat oil for frying to hot

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Yield: 1 serving

  • 2 slices bread
  • 2 eggs, slightly beaten
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 Tbsp. sugar
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. cinnamon butter or shortening to fry

Cut bread into ½-inch slices and cut slices in half diagonally. Mix eggs, milk, sugar, salt, and cinnamon well in a shallow dish. Dip bread into mixture. Fry it in a little butter or shortening until golden brown on both sides. Serve hot with topping of your choice.



You’ll need: deep fryer, shallow dish

Preheat frying oil to hot

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Yield: 1 serving

  • 2 slices bread
  • 1 egg, well beaten
  • pinch salt
  • 3 oz. light cream

Cut bread in ½-inch slices and cut slices in half diagonally. In a shallow dish, make a batter of well-beaten egg, salt, cream, and sugar. Dip bread in batter and fry to a golden brown in hot, deep fat. Remove and drain. Sprinkle with fruit, maple syrup, or honey and serve immediately.



You’ll need: electric mixer, mixing bowl, large skillet, paper towels

Heat oil for frying to hot

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

  • 8 slices white bread, cut 3/8 inch thick
  • 1 & ½ cups milk
  • pinch salt
  • 2 oz. butter, at room temp
  • 3 Tbsp. powdered sugar
  • ¼ tsp. vanilla or cinnamon
  • 6 Tbsp. strawberry preserves
  • 3 eggs
  • oil for frying

Spread one side of 4 slices of bread with butter. Spread one side of the other 4 slices of bread with preserves. To make sandwiches, press well together a buttered slice of bread onto a slice spread with preserves. Trim crust carefully and cut each sandwich into four triangles. In a mixer, beat eggs and sugar well together for at least 10 minutes. Add salt, milk, and vanilla or cinnamon and beat well again. Lay small sandwiches in this mixture, carefully turning them over to soak well. Drain on paper towels. Fry in a very little hot oil. Remove when of nice golden brown color and drain. Dust with powdered sugar and serve hot with maple syrup.



You’ll need: shallow bowl, large skillet. Heat oil for frying to hot

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Yield: 1 serving

  • 2 slices white bread
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 Tbsp. light cream
  • 1 Tbsp. clarified butter
  • 1 Tbsp. lard
  • powdered sugar

Cut two slices of bread ¾-inch thick and trim crust. Cut diagonally, making four triangular pieces. Beat eggs and cream together well. Dip bread triangles in mixture and fry until golden brown in hot butter and lard. Serve hot and well drained. Top may be sprinkled with powdered sugar if desired.


This special and renowned recipe, perhaps the best French toast of them all, was perfected by Fred Harvey chefs in 1918 for the Santa Fe Railway’s dining cars. It produces a puffy, golden brown delicacy. The Santa Fe Railway dining-car service, at its peak, provided nearly 1 million breakfasts a year. This item perennially topped the “most popular” list.


You’ll need: small mixing bowl, whisk, 12-inch cast iron skillet, paper towels, baking sheet

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

  • 2 slices white bread, cut ¾ inch thick
  • 2 eggs
  • pinch salt (optional)
  • ½ cup light cream
  • ½ cup cooking oil

Place cooking oil in skillet, heat to hot. Meanwhile, cut each bread slice diagonally to form four triangles, and set aside.

In small bowl, combine eggs, cream, and salt and beat well. Soak bread thoroughly in egg/cream mixture. Fry soaked bread in hot oil to a golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Lift from skillet to clean paper towel and allow to absorb excess cooking oil.

Transfer to baking sheet and place in oven. Bake 4-6 minutes, until bread slices have puffed up. Serve sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon and apple sauce, currant jelly, maple syrup, honey, or preserves, and bacon, ham, or sausage if desired.

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1 comment

Jan January 15, 2024 - 7:55 pm

Have looked for this my whole life! Went to Denver on the Zephr from Windsor Canada when I was in grade 7 with my Gram and nobody has ever given me French Toast like those African American cooks on the rail lines. Not even close. This is it…the real thing! Thank you!

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