Updated: Mar 1, 2020
(by Serina Bernstein)
It is Monday morning, the year is 2003, and the location is Los Angeles, California. George W. Bush is making plans to invade Iraq to recover “weapons of mass destruction,” Outkast is topping the charts with the song “Hey Ya!” and eight-year-old Serina Paris Bernstein is sitting at the dining room table in her usual spot. Ten minutes ago, I was sound asleep in my bed, and my mother Georgianne was acting as the alarm clock. “Time to wake up, sweet pea!” she said, pulling my pink-and-purple-striped butterfly shirt over my head, my eyes still closed in sleepy dismay.
I droop into the chair, tiredly awaiting the morning feast. My mother, having switched roles from alarm clock to chef, now places a plate of her homemade French toast on the table in front of me: three pieces of honey-wheat bread, defrosted from the freezer, heated in the toaster, dipped in a batter of eggs, milk, and vanilla extract, pricked with a fork several times, fried on a buttered sizzling pan, and dusted with cinnamon. This was a standard everyday breakfast for me. Upon my request, the French toast was garnished with powdered sugar and a scoop of strawberry jam on the side for dipping—neither the first nor the last variation on the recipe.
Although French toast is simple, its significance for us is held in the past, both recent and distant. My mother cherishes the recipe because it is a reminder of her French grandmother, Jeanette. The French toast that my mom made for me in 2003 had some similarities to the French toast that Jeanette made for my mother in 1964. There was still cinnamon and vanilla, but maple syrup and another type of bread were used. The setting and context in which this meal was eaten was also different: Jeanette and Georgianne were living in the country in upstate New York; the Civil Rights Act had just been signed into effect by President Johnson; and the top song on the radio was “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles.
Though long deceased, Jeanette had a far-reaching influence. She is partly responsible for my middle name being that of the glorious French capital, and for this recipe having a life in subsequent generations. But regardless of Jeanette's bloodline, the choice to prepare French toast for breakfast was purely American—perhaps owing to the decades of her assimilation in the states. “French toast” is the American version of pain perdu—a dish that is typically eaten as a dessert since heavy breakfasts are not the norm in France.
Fast forward to 2018, and the French toast recipe has transformed again. I have taken matters into my own hands. Milk and vanilla extract are missing; coconut oil is used instead of butter; sliced banana is fried on top instead of jam and sugar. I invented this variation several years ago while away at college in the midst of existential fear and confusion. A gesture of independence, with still a nod to tradition, I uphold this variation today. As my great-grandmother might say, Plus ça change….
Serina Bernstein lives in Los Angeles. She is involved in various creative arts including writing, photography, dance, filmmaking, and acting. She can be found at http://serina-paris.format.com and @serinaparis.
Banana French Toast
1/2 t. coconut oil
2 large eggs
2 slices of wheat bread
Heat coconut oil in a skillet over medium heat.
Beat eggs in a shallow bowl.
Dip both sides of bread in the beaten eggs, and place in the pan.
Thinly slice banana to cover the bread like checkers.
Douse heavily with cinnamon.
When the bread is slightly browned, flip the slices and press down with a spatula.
Cook for 5 minutes longer.