I was honored to speak at the James Beard House in New York this week, for their Beard on Books program. Afterward, we got into a discussion about links between the great American culinary legacies of Beard and the subject of my talk, Fred Harvey. Here’s an interesting one:

Chef Marion Cunningham, a protege of Beard’s, includes in her 1987 Breakfast Book cookbook a recipe for “J.B.’s French Toast,” which she says Beard told her was inspired by the French toast served on the Fred Harvey dining cars on the Santa Fe Railroad. (Beard, who grew up in Portland, was a seasoned train traveler and a fan of the many joys of fine rail dining). It employs crumbled-up cornflakes that “give every bite a crisp crunch that is mighty good.”

I believe that the cornflakes were Beard’s innovation, perhaps a new way to create a texture and flavor he remembered, because I find no evidence that the original Fred Harvey French toast served in the Santa Fe dining cars or the Harvey restaurants used them. Neither did any of the other major railroads (according to James Porterfield’s Dining By Rail).

So here are “J.B.’s French Toast” from Cunningham’s book, and the original Santa Fe French toast, from the recipe appendix to my new biography of Harvey, Appetite for America.

3 eggs
2 cups cornflakes
½ cup milk
4 tablespoons ( ½ stick) butter
½ teaspoon nutmeg
6 slices dense white bread
¼ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons sugar

Stir the eggs, milk, nutmeg, and salt together in a bowl until well blended. Strain the mixture through a sieve into a shallow bowl in which you can dip the bread easily (a soup bowl works well). Crumble the cornflakes slightly (to make each flake about half its original size) and spread them on a piece of waxed paper. Dip (don’t soak) both sides of each slice of bread into the milk batter. Then press each slice of bread on both sides into the cornflakes to coat the bread well. Melt two tablespoons of butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat and fry three slices of the bread until gloden on each side. When done, sprinkle about one tablespoon sugar on top of each slice and keep warm in 250-degree oven while you fry the other three slices in the remaining two tablespoons butter. Serve hot. Makes four servings.

Place one-half cup cooking oil in skillet, heat to hot. Meanwhile, cut two slices white bread three-quarters of an inch thick diagonally to form four triangles, and set aside. In a small bowl, combine two eggs, one-half cup light cream, and salt. Beat well. Soak bread thoroughly in egg/cream mixture. Fry soaked bread in one-half cup hot cooking oil to a golden brown on both sides, about two 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 four to six minutes, until bread slices have puffed up. Serve sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon and apple sauce, currant jelly, maple syrup, honey or preserves.

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2 Responses to “When James Beard met Fred Harvey (and made French toast)”

  1. Arty50

    Santa Fe really used cornflakes. Both my grandmother and mother mentioned it a lot when the topic of train travel came up. My mom still raves about it to this day. There are other accounts of it around the web too. We never were able to find a recipe though, but thanks to the wonders of the web here it is. Thanks a ton for posting this. It’s much appreciated since I finally get to try it.

    March 8th, 2011 | 10:09 pm
  2. Arty50

    Or come to think of it. maybe they didn’t use cornflakes. My memory could be fuzzy on that part. They did always rave about the French Toast though.

    March 8th, 2011 | 10:16 pm

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